Favorite Pulitzer-Winning Books

With the recent naming of a new Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, I thought of past winners and wondered how many of those American-authored books I had read. So I looked at the Pulitzer website and counted 35 perused-by-me titles honored from 1918 to 1947 (when the category was for novels only) and 1948 to now (when the category became “fiction” to include short-story collections).

Then I decided to rank my favorites. Why? Because I needed a blog idea for this week. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll note before I offer my in-descending-order list that I liked most of the 35 books — including the lower-ranked ones, so there were definitely many deserving victors. Yes, I liked most, but not all. ๐Ÿ™‚

35. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2005 Pulitzer winner): Some consider this novel a subtle gem, but I found it boring. I was also put off by the old man/young woman marriage. I much prefer Ms. Robinson’s novel Housekeeping.

34. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron (1968 winner): I wanted to like this historical novel — Nat Turner was a hero — but the writing annoyed me. Maybe it was partly because a white author was not-so-successfully trying to get inside the head of the insurgent African-American slave.

33. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1953 winner): A short classic in the eyes of many, but I thought it was so-so. Give me Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls any day of the week.

32. The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx (1994 winner): Appealingly quirky and unappealingly quirky.

31. One of Ours, Willa Cather (1923 winner): Hardly Ms. Cather’s best work, yet aย pretty absorbing World War I novel.

30. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (2000 winner): I’m more a fan of novels (including Ms. Lahiri’s) than short stories, but this collection has a nice ratio of excellent tales vs. good tales.

29. The Fixer, Bernard Malamud (1967 winner): Compelling story of an unjustly imprisoned Jewish man in Czarist Russia.

28. Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener (1948 winner): A novel comprised of interrelated short stories is usually not my cup of tea. Still, this is quite good — and it of course inspired the musical South Pacific.

27. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (2009 winner): Similar short-stories-as-novel format as the above Michener work. The acerbic Olive is an abrasive “hoot.”

26. Tinkers, Paul Harding (2010 winner): A mesmerizing blend of the past and present through the eyes of a dying man.

25. March, Geraldine Brooks (2006 winner): Interesting concept of focusing on the American Civil War experiences of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

24. The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2007 winner): A post-apocalyptic novel that doesn’t match the author’s best work (such as Blood Meridian) while still being memorable.

23. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson (2013 winner): A strange but very readable novel set in North Korea.

22. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1937 winner): I’d rank this higher if the troubling racial dynamics weren’t so painful.

21. The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington (1919 winner): Progress vs. tradition, and some disturbing family relationships.ย 

20. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder (1928 winner): Very poignant novel.

19. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932 winner): Classic set in China.

18. Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis (1926 winner): A doctor indelibly depicted.

17. A Confederacy of Dunces, William Kennedy (1981 winner): Weird and absolutely hilarious.

16. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren (1947 winner): One of the best political novels.

15. Ironweed, William Kennedy (1984 winner): Masterfully sad look at characters on the street.

14. Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie (1985 winner): The affairs are of the romantic variety, and the professor protagonist is very original.

13. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (2008 winner): A novel about a nerd, the United States, and the Dominican Republic — with amazing footnotes.

12. The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1939 winner): A boy and his fawn. Among the greatest young-adult novels ever written.ย 

11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2001 winner): About two cartoonists roughly based on the co-creators of Superman.

10. The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk (1952 winner): Gripping shipboard saga.

9. The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1983 winner): A powerful look at racism, sexism, and more via letters.

8. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2003 winner): An eye-opening story featuring gender confusion, immigration, and other elements.

7. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1988 winner): The iconic work set after the American Civil War.

6. The Overstory, Richard Powers (2019 winner): A tour de force starring people and trees that I’m currently reading, so its rank might change by the time I finish. Will discuss it more in a future blog post.

5. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1921 winner): Unforgettable novel about (among other things) choosing between the conventional and the unconventional in a relationship.

4. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2014 winner): Wide-ranging book about the impact a priceless painting has on the protagonist’s life.ย 

3. Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2002 winner): Enthralling novel that’s sort of low-key until the emotional fireworks arrive.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1961 winner): There’s nothing I can say about this book that hasn’t been said before.

1. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1940 winner): The uprooted, beleaguered Joad family in a riveting novel that brims with outrage against injustice.

Your favorite Pulitzer-winning books (including those I mentioned and those I haven’t read)? Anything you’d like to say about them?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — which discusses an “event horizon” of sortsย — is here.

92 thoughts on “Favorite Pulitzer-Winning Books

  1. Dave” To Kill a Mockingbird,by Harper Lee ” (1961 winner) is my all time favorite book as I have read the book so many times, then came the movie with Gregory Peck..
    Then came ” Go Set a Watchman “, when Lee was in declining health, wish I never read the book as you never did Dave.

    ” The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemongway “was certainly a classic, heartwarming small story book with so much kindness in there.
    “Gone with the Wind ” in comparison was an epic tale by Margaret Mitchell , then there was the Movie ,

    On Jhumpa Lahiri`s books I do agree with you Dave , her latest was a brilliant one ,” The Lowland “.

    There are so many brilliant writers with fascinating books , but never won the Pulitzer Prize, oh well !.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Bebe!

        “To Kill a Mockingbird” IS a fabulous novel. I can see why it’s your favorite. And I loved the movie, too.

        “The Lowland” is indeed excellent, as is Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake.”

        A real shame John Irving hasn’t won a Pulitzer. He certainly has deserved to, as have some other non-winners: Barbara Kingsolver, Khaled Hosseini, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I liked from Art Gowns, now from GLAM!
    I know we were talking about this on my blog already, so just want to say:
    Of all the books on the list my 2 faves are “The Good Earth” & “Gone With the Wind”.
    Yes, I understand “troubling racial dynamics” are painful in GWTW. There’s much to be said, debated, hated and berated.

    Honestly Dave, I only found out in the last couple of years (as many Canadians), that Canada had slaves until the late 1700’s. PEI held out until 1834.
    There is much renaming of schools and institutions going on here, because of that.
    Also, we are in a big tither about treatment of our aboriginal peoples, and there is much renaming of streets, towns, institutions, etc. going on there.
    Another mass grave was found. The Pope is coming in person to apologize. Crown Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla are here for a 70th Jubilee visit. Among other things, they are stopping to apologize to our First Nations.
    It’s crazy, but my forefathers came here to escape persecution, only to steal another peoples’ land and persecute them.

    So, this is the edited down version of my essay comment.
    Thank you for listening!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa, for mentioning two of your Pulitzer favorites. Yes, sometimes novels have troubling aspects yet are still impressive.

      Canada certainly has a reputation for a less problematic past and present than the U.S., but, as you note, it still has a lot to answer for. And, yes, a number of countries and/or people with a history of being oppressed turn into oppressors to some degree. Has of course happened in the U.S., Canada, Israel…


  3. I have long understood the Pulitzer as I have understood the Oscars, as I have understood the Grammys, etc, to be a way of honoring old hands by fellow practitioners for lifetime achievements, and improving the sales prospects for, and exciting more public curiosity about, younger winners with fewer works than the old hands. I don’t buy the works awarded the prizes on that sole criterion, but if I see a book, say, has received a Pulitzer, I am liable to give it a longer look.

    I’m lazy, and I wouldn’t know how to go about it easily, but it might be interesting to note the pub dates of one’s favorite novels, and see the book that won that year. I’d imagine there would be many instances in which the conclusions of the judges or voters as to which books were best that year do not match one’s own.

    De gustibus, etc.

    I’ve read more than a few on your list, and there are more there I intend to read, but there are others I doubt I’ll ever crack.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! There are indeed different criteria for awarding prizes — some creative, some commercial, some lifetime-achievement-ish, etc.

      And very interesting point about the Pulitzer winner in a particular year periodically not being as good as those that didn’t win. One example is the fantastic “The Poisonwood Bible” losing out to the very good “The Hours” in 1999.


  4. I’ve read a good many of these and it’s so hard to pick a favorite. I’d say the ones that rank up there though are the Overstory (was so happy to see that make this list!), Beloved, and Gone With the Wind. And of course, the Grapes of Wrath gets top billing as it could easily qualify as my favorite novel of all time.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. HI Dave, I have read several of the books you mentioned here. I had a look at the complete list on the internet and didn’t spot any others I have read. I must admit that The Old Man and the Sea is my favourite Hemmingway. I enjoyed Gone with the Wind but would have preferred it to end when Scarlet married Rhett. The rest of the story got a bit much on the romance going wrong side for me. I’ve not read as many American novels as I have British novels. I’ve read a few award winning children’s books one of which is Journey to the river sea by Eva Ibbotson. I loved that book. Matilda by Roald Dahl also one an award.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I’m glad you wrote this, Dave. I’m sometimes tempted to reread some of my favourites on this list, but — so many books, so little time! I remember being spellbound by Beloved – a beautiful and disturbing read.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Cynthia!

      I totally hear you about the desire to reread, and the lack of time to do so if one wants to get to many books for the first time. There are several novels on my Pulitzer list I’d also love to reread — including “Beloved,” which you rightly praise.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. It’s great, Dave, that you make us think a little bit about great books we have been able to read thanks to all the exceptional writers:) The first one, which came to my mind was “Middlesex” and the family story of the Stephanides and their flight from Turkey to Smyrna (Ismir) and onward to the USA and the story of a baby girl- Calliope-who later turned into a teenage boy!
    “A Thousand Acres “by Jane Smiley and “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth also came to my mind. I loved them all!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Hi Dave, it’s quite fascinating going through this list as back when I read a few of them I wouldn’t have taken any notice of them being Pulitzer Price winners (more about my lack of knowledge about these sorts of things at the time!) I’ve read a few towards the top of your post. I loved ‘The Age of Innocence’ by Wharton. ‘The Colour Purple’ I read in college and think I might like to go back to it again at some point. And also ‘Middlesex’ I enjoyed.
    And I know there’s been TONS said about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, but is Harper Lee the only author who never published anything else even after winning the Pulitzer?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sarah! I also am not always aware a novel won the Pulitzer; sometimes I learn about that after I read it. ๐Ÿ™‚

      “The Age of Innocence,” “The Color Purple,” and “Middlesex” are indeed memorable novels — with the latter two highly original in their way.

      Great question about Harper Lee! Perhaps Margaret Mitchell? And I guess William Kennedy couldn’t write another novel after winning the Pulitzer because he won it posthumously.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Donna!

      I added “Less” to my to-read list. (It was also suggested by a commenter on Facebook when I posted a link to this blog post there.) I always appreciate enthusiastic recommendations. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

  9. You have the best ideas for posts, Dave, which always has me going off script. What I especially appreciated was your nod to other books that were more interesting. For example, Corman McCarthyโ€™s โ€œBlood Meridianโ€ and Ms. Robinsonโ€™s novel โ€œHousekeeping.โ€ I agree with you on Gone With the Wind . And my personal favorite of all the list is Thornton Wilderโ€™s โ€œThe Bridge of San Luis Rey.โ€ Every since I first read this book when I was 15, I have carried this quote with me.

    โ€œWe ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.โ€

    The question that came to mind (and this is the digression) is: how is the Pulitzer Prize for fiction chosen? What I found was a complicated system to ensure fairness etc. The original mandate was, (1917/1918)Annually, for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood,”

    But how to define โ€œwholesome.โ€ It seems that there was some debate until the advisory board quietly replaced the word โ€œwholesomeโ€ with โ€œwhole.โ€ I understand that there were a couple more iterations over the years, but one thing remains constant – the love of books and acknowledging the exceptional contribution of writers.

    While achieving a Pulitzer Prize would be an accomplishment, I believe that writing a book is the grandest accomplishment of all. My gratitude goes to writers who bring us the stories, who do the research and work long hours to chose the words that will ignite our lives.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca, for the kind words and the wide-ranging comment! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Yes, it’s interesting how some Pulitzer winners received that award for novels that are not their best. Sometimes, as was the case with Faulkner, it almost seems like a later-career consolation prize. I think that’s also happened with the Oscars in certain cases.

      “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” is indeed an incredibly moving novel. That transcendent quote you cited kind of encapsulates the book. I’m wondering now if I should have put Thornton Wilder’s classic higher on my list. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Excellent questions about how the Pulitzers are chosen! The process does seem fairly fair, with some checks and balances, but of course biases of all types enter the equation. Is a novel too “unconventional”? Does a judge personally dislike the author? Etc.

      Last but not least, I loved your comment’s final paragraph! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 4 people

  10. I must admit I haven’t paid much attention to which books have won the Pulitzer. I’ve read some of the ones you listed, but so long ago I’ve forgotten the details. I did read The Goldfinch. Like another book by Tartt, The Secret History, the writing was wonderful but I didn’t care for the characters’ experiences with drugs related in great detail.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Audrey! I guess sometimes I pay attention to Pulitzer fiction winners and sometimes I don’t. ๐Ÿ™‚ And I totally agree about Donna Tartt — a superb writer who can overdo the drug-use depiction. (I did like “The Goldfinch” a lot more than “The Secret History.”)

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Dave, you’ve read more of the recent books than I have. I would second the recommend for The Stone Diaries. Larry’s Party is another good novel by Carol Shields. An older novel that I recently reread and was very impressed by is The Late George Apley, a kind of moral fable about American business ethics set in New England. A Bell for Adano was, I think, published immediately after the war in a magazine. It’s a kind of documentary novel about world war ii in Italy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Jean! I appreciate the seconding of Liz’s “The Stone Diaries” recommendation, and your other Carol Shields suggestion.

      I should read “A Bell for Adano” one of these days. I’ve liked other books by John Hersey: “A Single Pebble” and the horrifying “Hiroshima.”

      Liked by 1 person

  12. This is epic Dave…. I especially like some of the comments and I was having a wee laugh at Styron 1968 book cos I remembered brining that from the local library for my dad who would read anything and thinking oh, this has won the Pulitzer and like that it just annoyed him. Totally agree with you re the Hemingway and there’s a few here now I must read.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! You’ve read some of the top, middle, and bottom of my list — which I’m sure would be differently ordered for many other readers.

      “The Good Earth” is indeed an excellent book; the only work I’ve read by Pearl S. Buck.

      Liked by 2 people

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