The Pulitzer Prizes are a set of awards given each year for achievements in American journalism, literature, and composition. You might have noticed that quite a few of the books I’ve read and recommended here on Keeping Up With The Penguins are lauded as Pulitzer Prize-winners – for some reason, I seem to share a literary sensibility with the panel of judges. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (formerly the Pulitzer Prize for Novel) is awarded “for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. Here are eighteen great Pulitzer Prize-winning books from the past 100 years.
March by Geraldine Brooks
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2006
In her 2005 novel, March, Geraldine Brooks reimagines Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic Little Women from the perspective of the mostly-absent March patriarch. The Pulitzer Prize judges commended Brooks for adding “adult resonance to Alcott’s optimistic children’s tale to portray the moral complexity of war, and a marriage tested”. They called March “a lushly written, wholly original tale steeped in the details of another time”.
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1940
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath is now widely considered a classic of American working class literature, and a strong contender for the Great American Novel moniker. In the year following its 1939 release, Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel, and the National Book Award, for his searing social commentary. It was also the best-selling novel of the year (an astonishing 430,000 copies), and the Armed Services Edition went through two full print runs. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015
Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See explores the depth and breadth of human nature through a story about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in unlikely circumstances over the course of WWII. According to the Pulitzer Prize judges, Doerr “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another”. They called this New York Times best-seller “dazzling … a magnificent, deeply moving novel”. Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.
The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1953
The Old Man And The Sea was first published in 1952, the last major work of fiction by Hemingway to be published during his lifetime. The deceptively short and simple story revolves around an aging Cuban fisherman, and his struggle to reel in a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream. Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year following its release, and it was also cited specifically in the judges’ comments when he received a Nobel Prize for Literature (which Hemingway, in turn, dedicated to the people of Cuba).
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2003
Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex tells the uniquely intertwined history of Cal, an intersex third-generation Greek American. The Pulitzer Board described it as a “vastly realized, multi-generational novel as highspirited as it is intelligent … Like the masks of Greek drama, Middlesex is equal parts comedy and tragedy, but its real triumph is its emotional abundance, delivered with consummate authority and grace,”. Read my full review of Middlesex here.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019
Richard Powers’ The Overstory is “a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance”, one that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among several other awards and short-listings in 2019. It contains the stories of nine fictional Americans, each of whom share some special connection to trees, despite their disparate circumstances and eras. The Pulitzer Prize website describes it as “an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them,”.
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1937
Gone With The Wind is best known these days as the classic film, but back in 1936 it was an astonishingly popular novel by American author Margaret Mitchell. It was an instant best-seller, with hundreds of thousands of copies flying off the shelves long before the 1939 film adaptation. It depicts a questionable coming-of-age story against the backdrop of a horribly white-washed version of Southern plantation life immediately prior to and during the Civil War. It doesn’t stand up to today’s critical scrutiny, but at the time it was a phenomenon, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel the year following its release.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1999
As the ’90s drew to a close, Michael Cunningham was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, a novel that draws upon the life and work of Virginia Woolf “to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters who are struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair”. It is a “passionate, profound, and deeply moving” novel, one that is still widely recognised as Cunningham’s most remarkable literary achievement. Read my full review of The Hours here.
A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2011
A Visit From The Goon Squad is “an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed”. Egan centres the story on the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker, and his employee, the young and passionate Sasha. Told through a series of creative and innovative formats, this story “captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both”.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1988
Toni Morrison was awarded a slew of prizes for her 1987 novel Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among them. It seems particularly fitting, given that she hoped for the novel to stand in as a memorial testament to the lives lost and damaged beyond recognition by the Atlantic slave trade (“There’s no small bench by the road,” she said, “and because such a place doesn’t exist, that I know of, the book had to.”) In this unique story, of a former slave living a haunted life in Cincinnati, Morrison captures a universal pain and shame. Read my full review of Beloved here.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2018
It’s so rare that a truly funny book wins the Pulitzer Prize – which makes it all the more special when one does! Less got the gong in 2018, and it was very well deserved. The story revolves around Arthur Less, an aging gay man so desperate to avoid the wedding of his ex-lover that he accepts every invitation to every half-baked literary event around the world. Less is “a scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, [and] a bittersweet romance of chances lost”. Read my full review of Less here.
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1921
In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for The Age Of Innocence. It was a controversial choice, but not (necessarily) because of the author’s gender. The Pulitzer Prize for Novel was originally set to go to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, as per the choice of the Prize’s jury at the time, but the board overruled them and awarded the prize to Wharton instead. The apparent reason for the switch was Lewis’s novel having “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West”, and Wharton said in a note to Lewis that she “despaired” over the decision. Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.
The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2008
Junot Diaz has fallen from grace since being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, having been called out for despicable behaviour as part of the #MeToo reckoning. Despite the revelations, however, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is still sold in editions with a Pulitzer Prize seal embossed on the cover. The story itself is a fascinating window into an aspect of American life – a Dominican-American who dreams of overcoming the challenges of his ghetto home to find love and success – but can we really separate the art from the artist?
All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1947
Who would’ve thought, when Robert Penn Warren was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1947 for his fictionalised account of the troubled term of a populist governor, that it would still be so resonant over seventy years later? All The King’s Men traces the political career of Willie Stark, a cynical Southerner who seems destined for the life (and death) of a messianic figure. The New York Time Book Review called the book “magnificently vital reading, a book so charged with dramatic tension it almost crackles with blue sparks,”. Read my full review of All The King’s Men here.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017
The Underground Railroad is a semi-speculative alternative history of the antebellum South, one that Barack Obama called “terrific” and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. It “combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America,”. According to the judges, “The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.” Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1983
Alice Walker became the first ever black woman to win a Pulitzer when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Color Purple in 1983. It has retained its cultural currency across the intervening decades – so much so that it continues to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries, which seems to be a rite of passage for any meaningful work of literature. The story of a young black girl, told through her letters to God, is a challenging read, but a vital and perennially relevant one. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2007
Cormac McCarthy is a notoriously reclusive contemporary writer, but he granted rare and special insight into his writing process and creative mind after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Road in 2007. He told Oprah that it took him only six weeks to write the haunting post-apocalyptic novel. The idea came to him after a road trip with his son in El Paso, where he found himself wondering what the road might look like in a hundred years’ time. “It is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of,” according to his publisher.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1961
To Kill A Mockingbird has been widely considered one of the most iconic American novels of all time since its release, so it was hardly a surprise when Harper Lee received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The judges were openly disappointed in the literary offerings from established writers that year, but credited Lee with “revitalising American fiction” and producing a novel of “unusual distinction”. Her friend, Truman Capote, was happy for her – but remained bitter that she had won a Pulitzer, while he hadn’t for In Cold Blood, until his death. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.