On Exhibit: A Century of Excellence with the Pulitzer Prizes

October 07, 2016
Harper' Weekly Joseph Pulitzer Cartoon

A Harper's Weekly cartoon "American Editors II: Joseph Pulitzer," courtesy of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

When Gwendolyn Brooks received a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen, a book-length poem about an African American woman’s passage from childhood to adulthood set against a backdrop of poverty and discrimination, she became both the first recipient of the poetry prize and the first African American to win a Pulitzer. When Sinclair Lewis won the prize for his novel Arrowsmith in 1926, he refused it because he felt that his novel Main Street should have received the award in 1921—the only time that a Pulitzer has been refused.

These are just a few of the anecdotes shared in The Pulitzer Prizes: From Julia Ward Howe to Hamilton, A Selective Look at 100 Years of Excellence, an exhibition on view in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The show of Pulitzer Prize-winning work and related artifacts celebrates the prize’s centennial. “It has been a great privilege to work with the Pulitzer Prize collection at RBML and to uncover so many great stories about the people who have received the prize,” said Jennifer B. Lee, curator of the exhibit and the library’s performing arts collection.

The exhibition begins with a brief overview of the life and work of Joseph Pulitzer, the renowned newspaper publisher who founded the prizes and the Columbia School of Journalism. Initially the Pulitzers, which are administered by Columbia, included nine awards in education, journalism, letters and drama, as well as five traveling scholarships. They have evolved to recognize outstanding work in local and national reporting, editorial cartooning, photography, fiction, music, poetry and other categories.

More than 126 Columbians, nearly 100 from the Journalism School alone, share in the Pulitzer’s illustrious history. One of the first to be awarded went to Michael Pupin (CC 1883), a professor of mathematical physics and electrical engineering for whom Pupin Hall is named. He won for this 1924 autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor. More recently, recipients have included Margo Jefferson (JRN’ 71), a School of the Arts writing professor, who won in 1995 for criticism; historian Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, whose book on Abraham Lincoln, The Fiery Trial, won for biography in 2011; and Siddhartha Mukherjee, assistant professor of medicine, who earned the 2011 prize in nonfiction for his history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies.

The Pulitzer Prize exhibition is on view through December 23.

—By Eve Glasberg