The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is one of the most prestigious awards in American letters. Established by legendary newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, it has been awarded to authors since 1918.*
The Pulitzer Advisory Board, an 18-member body of journalists and academics, appoints three people to the Fiction jury every year. After spending months reading through hundreds of submissions, the jury submits three recommendations to the board members, who choose the winner. This process has occasionally led to controversy throughout the Prize’s 100-year history. The Advisory Board has overturned the jury’s decision on a number of occasions, and in some years—most recently in 2012—it declined to offer a prize at all.
The prize’s only true qualification is that it must go to a book written by an American citizen. With that in mind, I chose 30 books that I think best illuminate the history and scope of the United States. My choices, listed in alphabetical order by title, are listed below.
*It was known as the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel until 1948, when the name was changed and it was expanded to include short story collections.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Year Awarded: 1921
First Line: “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”
Description: Wharton’s novel delves into the world of New York high society during the Gilded Age of the 1870s. Countess Ellen Olenska, the beautiful cousin of the protagonist’s fiancée, has fled Europe and a failed marriage. Her presence—which shocks and embarrasses the family—makes a deep impression on Newland Archer, the protagonist, as he struggles to cope with the scope of his attraction to her.
Trivia: Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Year Awarded: 1947
First Line: “To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.”
Description: Warren’s novel tracks the rise of politician Willie Stark from a weak-willed lawyer to a powerful—and cynical—governor in a southern state in the 1930s. The story is narrated by Jack Burden, a former reporter who works for the governor.
Trivia: The title is based on the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall.”
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Year Awarded: 1998
First Line: “The Swede. During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete.”
Description: Roth’s sixth novel describes Seymour “Swede” Levov’s downward spiral as the turbulence of the American ‘60s collides with his successful middle-class life. The story is narrated by Swede’s former classmate Nathan Zuckerman, said to be an alter ego for Roth. Years after Nathan has graduated from high-school, he returns to Newark to discover that Swede’s daughter set off a bomb in a post office in protest of the Vietnam War, killing an innocent bystander.
Trivia: In 2016, the book was adapted into a film starring Ewan McGregor as “Swede,” Jennifer Connelly as Swede’s wife Dawn and Dakota Fanning as his daughter Meredith.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Year Awarded: 1972
First Line: “Now I believe they will leave me alone.”
Description: Stegner’s novel follows historian Lyman Ward as he leaves behind his profession and his living family in favor of recreating the lives of his grandparents, settlers of the western American frontier.
Trivia: The novel is based on letters written by Mary Hallock Foote, a writer and artist whose books documented life in the early 20th-century American West.
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
Year Awarded: 1926
First Line: “The driver of the wagon swaying through forest and swamp of the Ohio wilderness was a ragged girl of fourteen.”
Description: Lewis’ novel follows Martin Arrowsmith, a young scientist who reaches a powerful position in the scientific community, only to renounce it in favor of a quiet life in rural Vermont. Science writer Paul de Kruif helped Lewis write the book, and he received 25 percent of the book’s royalties.
Trivia: Lewis, who was denied the prize in 1921 (the Advisory Board decided his novel Main Street wasn’t “wholesome” and gave the award to Edith Wharton instead), declined the award, stating that “all prizes, like all titles, are dangerous.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Year Awarded: 1988
First Line: “124 was spiteful.”
Description: Morrison’s fifth novel is the story of a runaway slave who kills her own child rather than let her be recaptured by Southern slave owners. Years later, the dead child’s spirit returns to haunt her mother.
Trivia: The Toni Morrison Society is a group that donates benches to sites in America that played host to some of the grisliest scenes in the history of slavery. The group was inspired to do so by Morrison, who gave a speech shortly after Beloved’s publication in which she noted that there wasn’t even a “small bench by the road” to recognize many of the places where slavery’s cruelties took place.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
Year Awarded: 1928
First Line: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
Description: Thornton’s novel follows Brother Juniper, a Franciscan friar on a five-year quest to interview everyone who knew the five victims of the terrible tragedy he witnessed in Peru. As the friar meets the victims’ family members and friends, he begins to meditate on the “direction and meaning in lives beyond [our] own will.”
Trivia: John Hersey used The Bridge of San Luis Rey as inspiration for his ground-breaking work of journalism, Hiroshima, which explored the atomic bomb blast through five survivors’ perspectives.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Year Awarded: 2008
First Line: “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.”
Description: Díaz’s rip-roaring novel is narrated by Yunior, a Dominican-American who recalls the tragicomic life and death of his comic book-obsessed friend Oscar de Leon. Oscar, like Yunior, is the son of Dominicans who fled the Dominican Republic for the industrial wasteland of New Jersey. The novel moves seamlessly between their story, Oscar’s comics-inflected imagination and the recent history of the Dominican Republic, which was ruled by a sadistic dictator named Rafael Trujillo until he was assassinated in 1961.
Trivia: Díaz’s book often utilizes Spanglish.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Year Awarded: 1983
First Line: “You better not never tell nobody but God.”
Description: Walker’s novel follows Celie, a young black woman in the American south, as she leaves home and struggles to make a meaningful life for herself in the face of poverty and cruelty. Celie is beaten and abused by many of the men in her life; seeking some meaning from her struggles, she begins to write a series of autobiographical letters (initially addressed to God), which make up the bulk of the novel. Eventually, a friendship with an older woman turns takes on an erotic charge, offering a route out of Celie’s troubles.
Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation of the novel came at a fortuitous time for a young Oprah Winfrey. She starred in the film as Sofia, one of the book’s central characters, and it was released the year before she launched The Oprah Winfrey Show.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Year Awarded: 1981
First Line: “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”
Description: Toole’s novel follows Ignatius J. Reilly, a hilarious, slothful critic of modernity and failed writer who bores his friends and exasperates his mother—with whom he still lives at age 30. Reilly’s ruminations on pop culture, hot dogs and an aborted trip to Baton Rouge (his only attempt to leave New Orleans) are wildly over-the-top and always salted with a strong dash of humor.
Trivia: There have been a number of failed attempts to adapt the book to a movie. The untimely deaths of multiple comedians who had signed on to play Reilly—including John Belushi and John Candy—led Steven Soderburgh to declare the project “cursed.”
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Year Awarded: 1941*
First Line: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.”
Description: Hemingway’s novel takes place in 1937 during the second year of the Spanish Civil War—a gruesome conflict between a fractured Communist and Anarchist Republican front on one side, and the fascist Nationalists led by Francisco Franco on the other. It follows Robert Jordan, an American who has signed up to fight with the International Brigades against Franco’s forces, on a failed mission beyond enemy lines. Hemingway wrote the novel by drawing on his experiences as a newspaper reporter in Spain during the war.
Trivia: *The Fiction Prize jury unanimously recommended the novel for the award—and the Advisory Board agreed. Yet Nicholas Murray Butler, then-president of Columbia University (which oversees the Prizes), vigorously refused, stating that he found the book “offensive.” No Fiction Award was given that year, but the book is included in this list thanks to the unanimous jury decision.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Year Awarded: 1937
First Line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
Description: Mitchell’s novel—one of the most influential in the American canon—is the coming-of-age story of Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of a Georgia slave owner. Scarlett’s multiple marriages, including her iconic relationship with Rhett Butler, take place against the backdrop of the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.
Trivia: The 1939 film adaptation of Gone with the Wind is a classic of Hollywood cinema. Hattie McDaniel, who played the role of Mammy, was the first African-American actress to win an Oscar.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Year Awarded: 1940
First Line: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”
Description: Steinbeck’s novel follows the Joad family as they trek from Oklahoma—devastated by the Dust Bowl—to California in search of work during the Great Depression. But work in California is hard to come by, and the pressures of runaway capitalism force the family into tragedy.
Trivia: Steinbeck wrote the novel based on notes taken by the writer Sanora Babb, who collected stories about migrant farmworkers in California in the 1930s. She wrote a novel based on her interviews called Whose Names Are Unknown, but it went unpublished until 2004 after being overshadowed by The Grapes of Wrath.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Year Awarded: 1974*
First Line: “A screaming comes across the sky.”
Description: Pynchon’s wild third novel is a fixture in the American post-modern canon. Set in Europe at the end of World War II, it is loosely structured around the design of the German V-2 rocket.
Trivia: *The Pulitzer Advisory Board denied the book the prize—even though it was unanimously recommended by the 1974 Fiction jury. The board was offended by the content, and no award was given that year. But it’s still included in this list thanks to that unanimous jury decision.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Year Awarded: 1999
First Line: “She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather.”
Description: An extended homage to Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham’s novel maps the mental landscapes of three women separated by generations but linked by their affinity for Woolf’s title character.
Mrs. Dalloway was originally titled The Hours.
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
Year Awarded: 1969
First Line: “Dypaloh. There was a house made of dawn.”
Description: Momaday’s novel follows Abel, a young Native American man who left his reservation in New Mexico to fight in World War II. As he struggles to reintegrate with life on the reservation, he descends into drinking and, eventually, murder. His downward spiral continues in Los Angeles, only stopping when returns to New Mexico to care for his dying grandfather.
Trivia: Momaday, a member of the Kiowa tribe, grew up on various reservations throughout his childhood. A House Made of Dawn is drawn from his memories of life on the Jemez pueblo in New Mexico.
In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow
Year Awarded: 1942
First Line: “The street was darkened by a smoky sunset, and light had not yet come on in the lamps near the empty house.”
Description: Glasgow’s novel follows the Timberlake family as their money and influence wanes in the American South at the end of the Great Depression. In This Our Life explores how Americans’ skewed ideas about race can wreck lives.
Trivia: The novel was adapted into a film in 1942. Its frank depiction of race relations in the American South made it controversial, however, and the now-defunct U.S. Office of Censorship denied it permission for foreign release.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Year Awarded: 2000
First Line: “The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.”
Description: Lahiri’s debut includes nine short stories that follow the lives of Indians and Indian-Americans as they struggle to determine their place in the world.
Trivia: The book has sold over 15 million copies worldwide.
To Kill A Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Year Awarded: 1961
First Line: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
Description: Lee’s novel is narrated by Scout Finch years after she has grown up and left her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama far behind. Scout recalls how, as an intrepid six-year-old, she watched her father Atticus defend a black man who had been unjustly charged for a crime he did not commit.
Trivia: Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the award-winning 1962 film adaptation of the book, named his grandson Harper in honor of his long friendship with the author.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
Year Awarded: 1990
First Line: “It was a Saturday afternoon on La Salle Street, years and years ago when I was a little kid, and around three o’clock Mrs. Shannon, the heavy Irish woman in her perpetually soup-stained dress, opened her back window and shouted out into the courtyard, ‘Hey, Cesar, yoo-hoo, I think you’re on television, I swear it’s you!’”
Description: Hijuelos’ second novel follows two Cuban brothers who emigrate to New York City in the ‘50s. As musicians, they entertain their friends and families with Caribbean-inflected tunes and briefly experience a flash of fame when their friend Desi Arnaz—the real-life actor who played Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy—invites them to play a song on the show.
Trivia: Hijuelos was the first Latino author to win the prize.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Year Awarded: 2003
First Line: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Description: Eugenides’ novel revolves around Cal Stephanides, a Greek-American, as they transition from being a woman to being a man in mid-century Detroit.
Trivia: A number of therapists and doctors who treat intersex patients commended Eugenides for his compassionate portrait of Cal.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Year Awarded: 2009
First Line: “For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy.”
Description: Strout’s short story collection includes 13 interrelated tales detailing residents’ lives in the small town of Crosby, Maine.
Olive Kitteridge was adapted into an award-winning HBO miniseries in 2014 starring Frances McDormand as the titular character.
One of Ours by Willa Cather
Year Awarded: 1923
First Line: “Claude Wheeler opened his eyes before the sun was up and vigorously shook his younger brother, who lay in the other half of the same bed.”
Description: Cather’s novel follows Claude Wheeler, a Nebraska boy who can’t shake the sense that his father’s success has left him without a clear purpose in life. His malaise lands him in the U.S. Army during World War I, where he begins to find some meaning—until he confronts the German army on the Western front.
Trivia: Many of Cather’s male contemporaries used her decision to narrate scenes from the battlefield as grounds on which to dismiss her. “Poor woman,” Ernest Hemingway wrote to Edmund Wilson in a letter accusing her of cribbing scenes from the film Birth of a Nation, “she had to get her war experience somewhere.”
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Year Awarded: 2007
First Line: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”
Description: McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel imagines a world wrecked by nuclear fallout. It follows a man and his young son as they journey across the blasted landscape, facing trials and tribulations along the way.
Trivia: McCarthy told Oprah that he conceived of the novel on a trip to El Paso, Texas, with his young son.
Roots by Alex Haley
Year Awarded: 1977 (No Pulitzer Prize was awarded in Fiction this year. Instead, Haley was given a Special Award for Roots.)
First Line: “Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte.”
Description: Haley’s novel is a multi-generation epic that begins with the life of Kunta Kinte from his adolescence in the Gambia through his capture, enslavement and sale to a white slave owner in the United States. Kinte’s great-great-great-great grandson, the reader learns, is Haley.
Trivia: The book brought on a firestorm of controversy when it was marketed as a heavily-researched work of “faction” in 1976, and scholars quickly pointed out errors in Haley’s methodology. But that controversy was soon overshadowed by an accusation of plagiarism by Harold Courlander, who proved that sections of the novel were copied from his book The African.
The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
Year Awarded: 1994
First Line: “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”
Description: That unassuming first line begins Proulx’s continent-spanning epic, following Quoyle to Newfoundland, Canada, where he unravels the tight knot of his family’s secrets while writing a column for a small-town newspaper.
Trivia: A “quoyle” is a way to store long ropes aboard a ship in a tightly-wound coil laid flat.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
Year Awarded: 1995
First Line: “My mother’s name was Mercy Stone Goodwill.”
Description: Shields’ eighth novel is the fictionalized autobiography of a character named Daisy, who is surrounded by death and loss, even into motherhood and family life. Daisy is born early in the 20th century and dies in the ‘90s; the decades in between are narrated via Daisy’s scrupulous diaries, which infuse the banality of middle-class life with a deep sensuality.
The Stone Diaries is the only book to have won both the Pulitzer and the prestigious Canadian Governor General’s Award.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Year Awarded: 2016
First Line: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.”
Description: Nguyen’s debut novel follows an unnamed double-agent who flees Vietnam as communist forces invade Saigon and infiltrates the Vietnamese community in Los Angeles. The spy-narrator, the son of a white French priest and a Vietnamese mother, wrestles with remaining devoted to his split causes, which eventually draw him into a web of murder and heightening deceit.
The Sympathizer was published on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the battle where the North Vietnamese forces defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
Year Awarded: 2017
First Line: “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”
Description: Whitehead’s sixth novel follows Cora, an enslaved woman who decides to travel North via the Underground Railroad. But there’s a twist: the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad.
Trivia: The book was the first novel to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award since Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News in 1993.
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Year Awarded: 1939
First Line: “A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney.”
Description: A coming-of-age tale set in central Florida in the late 19th century, Rawlings’ novel follows Jody Baxter as he grows up on his parents’ scrappy farm.
Trivia: The book was a massive bestseller in the United States, and it was translated into nearly 30 foreign languages.
Lucas Iberico Lozada, Paste’s assistant books editor, is a freelance writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can follow him on Twitter.