The Pulitzer Diaries: Inside America's Greatest Prize

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The Pulitzer Diaries: Inside America's Greatest Prize. John Hohenberg. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997. 344 pp. $29.95 hbk.

The Pulitzer Diaries draws on Hohenberg's service as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and secretary of the Pulitzer board from 1954 to 1976 at Columbia University. The author, who was a professor of journalism at Columbia for twenty-four years and a journalist in Europe and the United States, had already written three books on the Pulitzers but seems to have decided that he can now release his diaries of the Pulitzer period twenty-two years after his service as administrator ended and after several of the people he writes about have died.

But the reader should not expect a whistleblowing, tell-all expose' from the evercourteous former Pulitzer administrator, who is now over ninety-two. Those who wish a more critical appraisal of these Academy Awards of journalism can consult the Pulitzer chapter in David Shaw's 1984 book, Press Watch, or the 1991 book, The Pulitzer Prize, by J. Douglas Bates. No journalist is reported to have had the audacity to refuse a Pulitzer and only two writers seem to have done so - novelist Sinclair Lewis and playwright William Saroyan who explained the Pulitzer was "consecration of the mediocre."

Partly because most of it didn't happen on his watch, Hehenberg doesn't dwell much on why many of the greats didn't win the Pulitzer - people such as journalist I.F. Stone; novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Theodore Dreiser, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin; poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; composers such as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Even Watergate-exposing journalists Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein didn't win individual prizes; the Washington Post was honored that year for their reporting.

Like other analysts of the Pulitzer, Hohenberg seems to think the Pulitzer board does a better job awarding journalistic prizes than it does in the arts. He writes of his frequent frustration in having the board overrule the more expert juries he had asked to serve.

Given the civil nature of Hohenberg's writing, it may be that he didn't have to wait so long to release his diaries. Three of the few men he seemed to have differed with were former Columbia journalism dean Elie Abel who he wrote was "obsessed" with getting on the Pulitzer board, board chairman Joseph Pulitzer Jr., and Ben Bradlee, a long-time board member and former editor of the Washington Post.

One thing emerging from Hohenberg's experience is how controversial and political the Pulitzer Prize can be. As the Washington Post moved forward to win its prize for Watergate, the wounded President Nixon publicly argued that "People don't win Pulitzer Prizes by being for, they usually win them by being against. …