90 Years of American Nobel Prize-Winners in Literature

On this day in 1930, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to an American for the first time since being established in 1901 by Swedish investor and businessman Alfred Nobel. The prize was created through Nobel’s will, specifying the fields – physics, chemistry, medicine, physiology, literature, and peace – and the criteria required to win one of these prizes. While the first of any of the Nobel Prizes to be awarded to an American went to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, it would be twenty-five years before any American would win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and that American writer was none other than Sinclair Lewis.

Many were surprised of this, though, because Sinclair Lewis had famously declined his Pulitzer Prize only four years earlier. Lewis was offered the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Arrowsmith, a work of medical fictions that follows a Dr. Martin Arrowsmith as he makes groundbreaking discoveries, suffers incredible loss, and attempts to generate conversation surrounding medical ethics. Lewis took pen to paper, crafting a letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee to make them aware of his declining of the prize, in addition to stating “That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.” Lewis then followed with an explanation of the fact that he did not support contests in which one book or author is praised over another.





Therefore, this led many to question why Lewis would accept the Nobel Prize, but not the Pulitzer Prize. The two prizes, however, are very different in their nature of criteria. While the Pulitzer is for a single novel, the Nobel Prize is based upon one’s career as a whole. In Lewis’ case, he received the Nobel Prize in response to writing five wildly successful and well-received novels throughout the 1920s. The titles consisted of Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. Once again, Lewis’ response to his award would make history, although this time his response would be in the form of an acceptance speech and not a letter of rejection. Lewis made his speech, entitled “The American Fear of Literature,” one day after receiving the Nobel Prize, in which he criticized the States for lacking literary standards.

Since Theodore Roosevelt’s reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States has had the greatest amount of Nobel Prize Winners. That is, in all categories besides literature. While there are quite a few notable American recipients we can recognize, including Sinclair Lewis, as well as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison; most recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature have been French. However, it is still of the utmost importance to recognize Sinclair Lewis’ historical literary feat. While we cannot say if the States will creep up on the list of literary recipients, we at least know it was Sinclair Lewis who would get the States on that list in the first place.

Hats off to you, Mr. Lewis, and might I add how glad I am for the fact you did not decline the Nobel Prize as well.