One of my more enjoyable writing exercises is compiling “Top 10 Lists.” I’ve been doing this for quite a while now, and am getting pretty good at it. Since I began writing reviews for Associated Content, I’ve created two “Top 10” and one “Top 5” lists for movies, and one “Top 10” list for books. My most recent list: the “Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for History Books of All Time,” which I published in April 2010. I have now completed my second “Top 10” book list: the “Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Books of All Time.”
There are literally dozens of writing prizes that are awarded annually in the United States. Of all the literary awards given in the United States each year, The Pulitzer Prizes stand out as the most prestigious. These prizes are the legacy of Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), who was arguably the wealthiest, most powerful, and most influential newspaper publisher of his time. In his 1904 last will and testament, Pulitzer specified the establishment of prizes for excellence in journalism, letters, and drama. Pulitzer wanted the prizes to be administered by a board of overseers (now called the Pulitzer Prize Board). When the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917, there were only eight categories. Now, nearly a century later, the awards have been expanded to 21 categories (14 for Journalism and 7 for Letters, Drama, and Music).
The category now known as Fiction was originally called “Novels.” Awards were made in the “Novels” category from the awards’ inception in 1917 until 1947. In 1948, The Pulitzer Prize Board renamed the category “Fiction” and broadened it to include short stories and compilations of works of fiction.
In descending order, allow me now to introduce my Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Books of All Time:
10. Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
(1960 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Doubleday
Advise and Consent is one of only two political novels that have risen to the level of greatness in American literature. Set during the height of the Cold War, it’s a tale of how the United States Senate attempts to confirm a President’s choice of a new Secretary of State. The political battle lines over the candidate’s nomination are sharply drawn: Majority Leader Bob Munson and his followers on one side; ancient and curmudgeon-like Seab Cooley and his small band of anti-communists on the other; and one man – with a dangerous secret – caught in the middle. Although this novel hasn’t aged well since its publication fifty years ago, it paints a fascinating picture of the Senate’s confirmation process, and of the political atmosphere and culture of its time.
9. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
(2004 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins
When I completed reading The Known World for the first time, I didn’t like it. The plot seemed excessively complicated; multiple story lines seemed to bounce all over the place. The book was hard to follow. I gave it a second reading, though, and when I did, I discovered its greatness. The Known World is an exposé of one of the least known facts regarding the pre-Civil War era in American history: there were free African Americans who owned African American slaves! This book tells the story of one such family – Henry Townsend, himself a former slave, dies and leaves 33 slaves to his widow Caldonia. What will she do with her inheritance? What is life like as a black slave owned by another black person? The Known World is difficult to read, but well worth the effort.
8. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
(1975 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: McKay
The Killer Angels is a masterful narration of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. The book employs several historical figures – most notably Joshua Chamberlain, Robert E. Lee, John Buford, and James Longstreet – to tell the powerful and gripping story of why Union and Confederate forces met at Gettysburg in the first place; how the three-day battle was fought, from the perspectives of both sides; and what the immediate effects of the battle were on those who fought it. The Killer Angels contains some of the finest battle scenes ever committed to the pages of a novel.
7. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
(1980 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Little, Brown
This unusual but vividly written book is actually a hybrid of history, biography, and fiction. The Executioner’s Song is the true story of the crimes and subsequent trial and execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore, who was the first man put to death in the United States after the Supreme Court lifted its ban on the death penalty in 1976. Had Norman Mailer told Gilmore’s story as straightforward biography, it would have made for captivating reading, and might have won the Pulitzer Prize in that category. As a novel, it stands as an innovative and utterly compelling saga of the life, crimes, and execution of an American criminal.
6. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
(2002 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
I have a special affection for Empire Falls because it’s a novel about Maine written by native Mainer Richard Russo. It’s actually less about Maine and her people as it is about small-town America, her culture, and her values at the turn of the twenty-first century. Through the words and deeds of its main characters are seen the age-old conflicts between the rich and the poor; the powerful and the downtrodden; the popular and the rejected; the young and the old… Empire Falls is brilliantly conceived – rich in detail, literate, alternately funny and tragic, and a powerful statement about modern day American values and mores.
5. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
(1947 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
All the King’s Men is a powerful saga of politics in the Deep South of the Depression era. The novel’s great protagonist is Willie Stark, a populist politician who, at the outset, possesses no great political skills or prospects for success. By force of his personal magnetism and corrupt nature, he rises to become the domineering Governor and political boss of his state. The novel’s narrator is Jack Burden, a writer of considerable promise who abandons a budding career to become Stark’s right hand man. All the King’s Men is a spellbinding story of political power, corruption, and greed.
4. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
(1986 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Lonesome Dove is one of the very finest works of fiction written by a twentieth century American author, and one of my all-time favorite books. This novel tells the story of two aging former Texas Rangers – Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call – and how they impulsively leave the security of their hometown of Lonesome Dove, Texas, in order to lead a cattle drive to Montana. Lonesome Dove is gritty, realistic, written with painstaking attention to detail, and filled with some of the most memorable characters ever to grace the pages of an American novel.
3. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
(1937 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Macmillan Publishers
This romantic novel, certainly one of the most famous in American letters, is also one of the best written. The plot and main characters are familiar to most: Scarlett O’Hara, owner of the plantation Tara, her love for Ashley Wilkes unrequited, meets and marries the roguish Rhett Butler. Together they endure family tragedy and the worst deprivations of the Union army that is occupying their homeland. Will their marriage last? A long and complex book, not quite aligned with my literary tastes, Gone With the Wind nevertheless stands as of the greatest of all American novels.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
(1961 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the frequently poignant and always eloquent examination of attitudes toward race in America at the dawn of the civil rights era. Harper Lee, a heretofore obscure novelist, penned one of the most memorable and emotionally powerful novels I’ve ever read. To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Atticus Finch, widowed lawyer bringing up two young children in a small southern town during the years when segregation held the Deep South in its oppressive grip. To Kill a Mockingbird is simply one of the finest American novels ever written.
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
(1940 Pulitzer Prize) Publisher: Viking Press
The Grapes of Wrath, is considered by many literary critics to be the greatest of all American novels. This is a book about the Great Depression, and one poor sharecropper family’s struggle to survive the worst deprivations that American society in the 1930’s had to offer. It’s the saga of the Joads, a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers evicted from their home and forced to migrate to California in search of work. John Steinbeck’s still highly controversial masterpiece is a biting critique of society, as relevant in today’s economic climate as it was when it was written seventy years ago.
There you have it: my list of the Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Books of All Time. Now… what are you waiting for? Go read one of ’em and enjoy!
The Pulitzer Prizes – The Official Web Site
Pulitzer Prize – Wikipedia Article
All the King’s Men – Wikipedia Article
“The Top 10 Pulitzer Prize for History Books of All Time” – Associated Content Article
Book Jackets of Listed Volumes
Personal Reading Experience