Authors Who Won the Pulitzer for their Lesser-Known Novels

Authors Who Won the Pulitzer for their Lesser-Known Novels

by Linda Napik*

They're part of the literary canon. Their books are found on many school reading lists. Their names are known even to people who don't read enough, but some of the most famous American authors who have won the Pulitzer Prize actually won the prestigious award for one of their lesser-known novels. Here's a look at the slightly less famous fiction of six Pulitzer winners.

1. William Faulkner

Pulitzer-Winning Novels: A Fable and The Reivers

William Faulkner is one of the U.S.A.'s all-time most influential and critically acclaimed authors. He is known in particular for being from the South and for evoking that region in his writing. Every year, thousands of students are assigned some Faulkner reading, whether it's the short story A Rose for Emily or one of his well-known novels: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August or Absalom, Absalom! But none of these books were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In fact, when Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 for his body of work, he still had not won a Pulitzer. Then, he won two: first for his 1954 novel A Fable and again for his 1962 novel The Reivers. Better late than never, and Faulkner became one of only a handful of authors to win more than one Pulitzer.

3. Sinclair Lewis

Pulitzer-Winning Novel: Arrowsmith

Sinclair Lewis was the first person from the U.S.A. to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930. Unlike Faulkner, Lewis had already been recognized by the Pulitzer committee when he became a Nobel Laureate, but like Faulkner, it was not Lewis' most famous novel that won the American award. Lewis' 1925 novel Arrowsmith was chosen to win the Pulitzer Prize in the Novel category, but Lewis famously refused the award, claiming that the prize looked more at atmosphere and standards of American life and manners than at literary merit. Despite Lewis' criticism, the story of Martin Arrowsmith arguably succeeded at both American atmosphere and literary achievement. Neither of Lewis' previous bestsellers Main Street or Babbitt were given Pulitzers, but the latter's title did enter U.S. English vocabulary and has come to mean a conformist, materialistic, middle-class businessman.

2. Willa Cather

Pulitzer-Winning Novel: One of Ours

Another staple of high-school reading lists, Willa Cather is the author of such classics as My Antonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop and O Pioneers! But those aren't her Pulitzer-winning classics. Cather was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her 1922 novel One of Ours. Like much of her work, One of Ours contemplates the changing American frontier, and the first half takes place in Nebraska, while the second half sees a main character head off to France to fight in World War I.

4. Upton Sinclair

Pulitzer-Winning Novel: Dragon's Teeth

Not to be confused with the aforementioned Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair was a famous muckraking writer whose short novel The Jungle forever changed awareness in the U.S.A. of working conditions, particularly among immigrants in Chicago's meatpacking industry. The Jungle was published in 1906, while Joseph Pulitzer was still alive, eleven years before any Pulitzer Prizes were given out. However, Sinclair won the award a few decades later for his 1942 novel Dragon's Teeth, one in his series of books featuring the character Lanny Budd. The plot deals with the Nazi takeover of Germany.

5. William Styron

Pulitzer-Winning Novel: The Confessions of Nat Turner

Acclaimed author William Styron had a great deal of literary success over the years. Some readers are most familiar with his novel Sophie's Choice, whose film version brought Meryl Streep an Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role as Sophie, or his non-fiction Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, a perennial sight in the Psychology section of your local bookstore. But Styron's Pulitzer came before either of those works. The Confessions of Nat Turner, published in 1967, is a fictionalized narrative told in the voice of the historical figure Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831.

6. Saul Bellow

Pulitzer-Winning Novel: Humboldt's Gift

Another author who collected prizes throughout his literary career, including the Nobel and a Fiction Pulitzer, was Saul Bellow. Two of his most famous books that failed to nab a Pulitzer Prize are The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog, both of which won the National Book Award and helped build Bellow's reputation. The Pulitzer committee bestowed their honor upon Humboldt's Gift, a 1975 novel that explores the relationship of art, power and the creative self.

The Pulitzer Prizes, awarded since 1917, seek to recognize distinguished work by American authors, generally about "American life," which can mean various things, depending on the year and the Pulitzer committee. While some authors' most famous works may have failed to attain this accolade, it's interesting to discover their other books that did make the cut, and to see which works of literature spoke to the American experience in a given year. ♦

Photos used with permission for nonprofit educational purposes.

* Linda Napik is a writer, editor, and ESL teacher with professional experience in many areas, including: journalism, public radio, human rights, literature, theater, feminism, editing, coffee and travel. She is a dedicated reader of classic novels and an enthusiastic world traveler. After recent ESL-teaching experiences in Korea, Thailand, Mexico, and China, she is currently living in Chicago.
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