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FAQ

2. Why did Sinclair Lewis decline the Pulitzer Prize?

Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for his novel, Arrowsmith. He was the first person who would not accept it. Lewis said at the time he did not agree with contests where one book or author was praised over another and wrote a lengthy letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee to that effect. The following is an excerpt from that letter reprinted in The Man from Main Street:

I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.
All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment. (19)

Lewis also objected to the way publishers advertised a Pulitzer winner as the best novel of the year, as if any committee or person was competent enough to select a best novel.

Previously, the Committee had recommended Lewis for the Pulitzer for Main Street in 1921, but that May the Trustees of Colombia University overruled the jury, and the prize went to Edith Wharton instead for The Age of Innocence. Some speculate that this instance led Lewis to decline the 1926 Pulitzer. Lewis's Babbitt waschosen for the Pulitzer in 1923, but the committee was again overruled by the Trustees and the Prize went instead to Willa Cather for One of Ours. This was a double neglect to Lewis. In a letter to his father he wrote:

I see that just as Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence beat Main Street for the Pulitzer prize, so did Cather's One of Ours beat Babbitt. I'm quite sure I never shall get the Pulitzer

Another school of thought is that the publicity for turning down the prize was worth more to Lewis than the monetary recompense that went with the prize (about $1000). This cynical view some say is substantiated by the fact that Lewis did accept the Nobel Prize in 1930. This award was worth considerably more. However, in a letter to a friend, Lewis made it clear that he would have accepted the Pulitzer for Main Street or Babbitt.