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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Awards Series: Pulitzer Prize

Kelly Klepfer writes from the lovely state of Iowa. She tends to live in the even lovelier state of Denial. She is the mother of teens and young adults which may have something to do with the denial thing. Her husband loves to listen to her endless writing tales and he smiles and nods, a lot. She currently works on two novels and scads of articles and short fiction.

What do the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial and President Kennedy have in common, beyond the Washington D.C connection? Now toss in Harper Lee, Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard.

Stumped? Now check out the title of this article, if you haven't already done so.

John F. Kennedy, the only president to win a Pulitzer Prize took the award in 1957 for "Profiles in Courage." Daniel Chester French designed the honor's public service gold medal. Harper Lee won for 1961's "To Kill a Mockingbird", Dillard for "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" (1975), and " Gilead" earned the 2005 Pulitzer for Robinson.

After studying the origin and many details of the lofty Pulitzer Prize, my head aches from cramming the gained knowledge into my gray matter. Fascinating facts surround the Queen Mother of writing awards.

Though most of us wouldn't scoff at the US$10,000 prize, or the certificate, there are prizes offering more money. But none carry the weight of the Pulitzer reputation.

The word distinguished is used to describe a Pulitzer worthy piece. I veered off to check out the actual definition for distinguish. The states it thus: To recognize or discern by marks, signs, or characteristic quality or qualities; to know and discriminate (anything) from other things with which it might be confounded; as, to distinguish the sound of a drum. [1913 Webster's]

Twenty-one categories make up the annual Pulitzer Prize opportunities. A public service category awards a gold medal to the nominating newspaper. The other twenty categories award a certificate, which is, no doubt, a great ice-breaker, "Hey, baby, wanna come up and see my Pulitzer Certificate?" as well as the cash prize of US$10,000.

Several sitcoms and movies have "awarded" fictitious characters a Pulitzer including Lois Lane and Homer Simpson. Homer puts a whole different spin on distinguished, but it gives me hope. If Homer can pull it off, we all have a chance, right?

One of the most common errors when referring to a Pulitzer Prize is the mispronunciation of its founder and namesake's name. Pulitzer is pronounced "PULL-it-zer" not "Pew-lit-sir" like I've always referred to it. I have trouble with nuclear also. My problem may result from the lack of a Hungarian bloodline, but that would only be an excuse for Pulitzer, so I suppose not.

The second common mistake with a Pulitzer is the claim of being a nominee. Publishers "enter" work but the Pulitzer juries choose the nominated finalists from all the entries. Usually only three finalists or nominees are chosen per category. So should you ever meet a person claiming to be a Pulitzer Prize nominee, you may want to check it out before agreeing to let him be your agent especially if he quotes you a cost to read your words.

Months of reading, watching performances and jury meetings go into the award of a Pulitzer Prize. After the initial June 4, 1917 ceremony, the recipients are chosen by an independent and anonymous board, and announced each April. Very few changes have occurred over the years, with most original category changes being category mergers or name changes. Internet reporting was added in 1999 and music was broadened in 1998. Though a work may not be popular, several plays have been off-Broadway, once a Pulitzer Prize is awarded, the popularity of a work increases. A simple ceremony is held in the law library rotunda every May, on the campus of Columbia University. The Pulitzer Prize board has refused paid offers to film the event, and suggestions to grow the event into a grander presentation.

More than 2,400 entries for the 21 available awards are submitted each year. Each entry requires a $50.00 fee. In the beginning of the prize year 102 judges are appointed. Seventy-seven editors, publishers, educators and writers meet in early March to judge entries in the 14 journalism categories. Early April brings the entire board together to the Pulitzer World Room. In the weeks prior to this meeting, each board member has read the nominated works, listened to the nominated music and attended the performances or watched videos of the plays.

The discussions commence and last for two days. At three o'clock in the afternoon, on the scheduled day, a conference is held, and the announcements are made, while the media world waits and watches, hoping to be able to celebrate the honor of writing a Pulitzer Prize winning piece.

If a category lacks prize winning entries, nothing is awarded in that category. Apparently 1964 was a dry year in the creativity department because fiction, drama and music awards were not given.

Controversy is not absent from the released list of winners.

Nor was Joseph Pulitzer, the man, without controversy. A tireless political and human rights activist, he slipped into "yellow journalism" for a short season. Mr. Pulitzer's "the World" entered a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst's "Journal." Four months after swaying Congress to respond to their pressure in 1898, Pulitzer and his newspaper became more restrained.

Pulitzer's 1904 words share his thoughts on journalism, and they end up being little bit prophetic. Were these words really spoken a full century ago? "Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalist of future generations."

Further information and primary source.
Wikipedia other internet and print sources were consulted.


  1. Great article, Kelly. I learned a lot!

  2. Whew. I'm glad you gave the pronunciation. As I started reading, I thought I'd comment on it, but you covered it. I learned the pronunciation when I was getting my degree in journalism.

    Pull - it - zer.

    Great post. Thanks!

  3. That's a good article, Kelly. I learned some things I didn't know. Like Pulitzer's 1904 quote. Wow. And a scary thought. Makes me glad Fox News has come into its own.

  4. I was amazed at how little I knew, once I discovered I didn't know it.

    About the Pulitzer , that is.

    I prefer baby steps while investigating my ignorance.


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