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.”