“In a flash of self-comprehension, Roger Brevard knew that he would never, as he had hoped, leave Salem. He was abstemious man, one of a family of long lives, and he would linger here, increasingly unimportant, for a great while, an old man in new epochs, isolated among strange people and prejudices. Whatever the cause—the small safety or an inward flaw—he had never been part of the corporate sweating humanity where, in the war of spirit and flesh, the vital rewards and accomplishments were found.”
One of the most confounding and interesting facts of the Pulitzer Prize is that in the first year of the Prize’s existence, 1917, the Pulitzer committee decided not to give the award to any book. In his very enlightening book, Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, Heinz Dietrich Fischer explains that only six authors submitted works that year and one of those works wasn’t even published—it was merely a manuscript! Of the five published books that were eligible to win, only one of them was deemed worthy of the Prize; the jury, however, decided that though “the merits of this book, though considerable, are no greater than that of several other novels, which though not included in the formal applications, have been taken into consideration by us in arriving at a verdict.”
From the very beginning of it, I knew that upon completing the Pulitzer Project I wanted to go back and research the books that were considered for the Prize in the years that it wasn’t awarded to anybody. Thanks to Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction I’ve been able to track down just about all of those books; unfortunately, though, I don’t know who the finalist was in 1917 (I’m determined to find out), but I do know who the finalist was in the next year that the Prize wasn’t awarded to anybody: Joseph Hergesheimer, for his novel Java Head.
And the story behind why Java Head didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize is almost as interesting as the story within the book’s pages.
The 1920 jury had a new member; one that supposedly was the center of a brief confusion about the nature of the Pulitzer Prize. John Hohenberg, secretary-administer of the Pulitzer Prizes from 1953 to 1976, wrote in his history of the Pulitzer Prizes in 1974 that the new juror had at first considered Joseph Hergesheimer’s Java Head for the Pulitzer, but that a confusion of four letters caused him to change his mind. Apparently, this new juror, Stuart P. Sherman, was working off Joseph Pulitzer’s original wording of the Prize’s criteria, requiring that it be given to the novel that “shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standards of American manners and manhood,” not realizing, at first, that the wording had since been changed to read “wholesome” instead of “whole.” Once presented with the official wording by the Pulitzer Prize committee, Sherman agreed that Java Head “doesn’t at all obviously conform” to the award criteria.
Which of course begged the question: what is it about Java Head that presents the “whole atmosphere of American life” but not the “wholesome atmosphere of American life?” I decided to find out for myself.
Reading the book, it’s very plain to see why it wasn’t awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Among these pages were accounts of a mixed-race marriage, drug addiction, suicide, murder, an illegitimate child, the casting of religion (Christianity, especially) in a not-so-positive light… And when you consider that the people in charge of selecting the big winners were uptight, puritanical, upper class white men, it’s no wonder Java Head “[didn’t] at all obviously conform” to the rigid guidelines of the Prize.
And, I have to say, this really, really frustrates me. In fact, had I known the early history of the Pulitzer Prize, I have to wonder if I still would have taken on this reading project. Joshua and I oft suspected it, but the fact that Java Head was not awarded for the specific reason it wasn’t awarded confirms that the Pulitzer Prize was never meant to be a distinction of merit; the Pulitzer Prize is meant to be a distinction of ideology, and the Pulitzer Prize committee had/has a very clear agenda. Look, I know politics plays into any award selection process but at least it’s subversive. In the case of the Pulitzer Prize (certainly in the case of the Pulitzer Prize in 1920), it was obvious and blatant: “only books that conform to our agenda will be considered.”
What’s even more frustrating is that Java Head ABSOLUTELY deserved to win! Hergesheimer was a talented writer who masterfully describes setting and is fantastic at creating interesting and complex characters and the construction of the novel as a whole is really interesting—pretty ahead of its time, actually, writing the story as an omniscient narrator in the third person from ten different viewpoints over ten chapters while keeping the plot progressing from chapter to chapter, the transitions between one chapter and the next occurring at the points when two characters’ paths converge. Very ahead of its time.
Where the book falls short, for me, is Hergesheimer’s inability to bring the characters to life; like I said, the characters were interesting and complex, but they weren’t dynamic. I don’t know if his writing was too distant or a little too polished, but I never formed any sort of connection to the characters. They were certainly interesting, just not very compelling.
Over all, though, this is a great read. The uniqueness (for its time) of the book’s structure alone makes it worth looking into. And I’m not alone in saying that Java Head is a great read; when asked in 1962 what his favorite novel was, the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett said, “one of the best I ever read was Hergesheimer’s Java Head.” Also, Hergesheimer’s style (known then as the “aesthetic school” of writing) is considered to have largely influenced Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As much of a shame it is that Java Head didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize in 1920, it’s even more of a shame that Joseph Hergesheimer’s legacy was cut short. Based on what I’ve read of him, it seems that while he was wildly popular during his heyday in the 1920’s, he had faded into obscurity by the time he died in the mid-1950’s. Could Java Head have been more expertly crafted? Sure. Could the story have been more engaging? Definitely.
But the fact that it and its author have been, now, almost completely forgotten is unjust.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.