A Very Brief History of the Nobel Prize in Literature
When the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature is announced next month, he or she will join a club more exclusive than just about any other in the world. You know those clubs at Ivy League schools, with names like “The Scone and Pudding Society,” where it’s a bunch of white guys who dress in costumes and make up silly songs and photograph each other naked? And how, you know, the members are, against all odds, actually proud of being in it? Instead of feeling kind of dirty and ashamed? Even more exclusive than that.
One thing’s for sure: Of all the 105 women and men who have won this prestigious award, none of them will ever be forgotten. Except for most of them. After the jump, we take a look at some of the past winners, and how they changed…the very world itself. Except for the ones who didn’t. Which, like I said, is a lot of them.
1901: René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme (France). The first writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, this poet earned his nickname after successfully crash-landing an airplane (then called “aeroplane”) on the Hudson River, an achievement that was especially impressive since the airplane wasn’t invented until 1903. Years later, his great-grandson would delight America with his enthusiastic demonstrations of how to cook blackened redfish and boudin.
1903: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (Norway). Surprise! It took them two years to give this to a Scandinavian. Some have said Scandinavians have an unfair advantage in the Nobels, an accusation that wasn’t helped by the 2004 decision to award the chemistry Nobel to an IKEA chair.
1907: Rudyard Kipling (United Kingdom). The first English-language author to win the Nobel, Kipling dedicated his victory to “all the savage wogs” who made the award possible. Then he shot an elephant and a Boer. It remains the most exciting ceremony in Nobel history.
1920: Knut Hamsun (Norway). Hey, another Scandinavian! Isaac Bashevis Singer once said that “the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.” Hamsun was a Quisling who gave his Nobel Prize to Goebbels and called Hitler a “warrior for mankind.” (That is true.) That’s all I have to say about this because my head hurts now.
1931: Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Sweden). The first and only dead writer to win the Nobel, but hey, Scandinavian!
1947: André Gide (France). Not only the first openly gay person to win the literature Nobel, but the first openly gay person to ever write a book. Seriously. There has never been another gay author. Ever.
1948: T. S. Eliot (United Kingdom). After this award, no one ever accused the Swedish Academy of being “secretly run by a Jewish cabal” ever again.
1957: Albert Camus (France). The Academy was going through a phase that year, you know? Nine Inch Nails. Clove cigarettes. They’re kind of embarrassed about it now.
1974: Eyvind Johnson (Sweden) and Harry Martinson (Sweden). The Academy got a lot of flak for giving the literature Nobel to these two members of the Swedish Academy instead of Vladimir Nabokov, who was also nominated. But history bears them out: everyone still has Johnson/Martinson fever, and who still reads Nabokov? Oh…oh, I see. Wow. I’m beginning to think this whole Nobel thing isn’t really on the level, especially when you consider that the very next year, the award was given to
1975: A lingonberry (Sweden).
1993: Toni Morrison (United States). America reacted to this pick the same way it reacts to most literary news: with generalized apathy and a suddenly-realized hunger for “cheez” curls. Three years after Morrison won, Oprah Winfrey selected Song of Solomon as the second pick for her book club, and Morrison’s books finally moved out of the “Black Interest” sections at Barnes & Noble stores. Well, some of them. Not Texas.
1997: Dario Fo (Italy). Possibly the most inexplicable Nobel pick ever – even more so than the Academy’s decision to jointly award the 1984 Peace Prize to the Ku Klux Klan and a car bomb. Interestingly, according to a poll conducted years later, this decision was derided by 94% of people who had never read Fo’s work, and 97% of people who had.
So who will be the next Scandinavian – I mean, writer – to win? Could it be…you? (Reread that last sentence while imaging a movie of me embedded in this post, and right after I say “be,” I turn toward the camera and point at you. Cool, right? I couldn’t figure out how to do that in WordPress. I thought there’d be like a button for that. I’m more used to Movable Type.)