Nobel Prize for Literature 1901-1905

About the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature from 1901 to 1905 including Mommsen and Sully-Prudhomme, behind the scenes of the decision.


1901 Rene F. A. Sully-Prudhomme (1839-1907), French. Work: Stanzas and Poems. Behind the Award--This initial prize should have gone to Leo Tolstoi, but one of the 18 literary judges, Dr. Carl David af Wirsen, a poet and critic, denounced Tolstoi behind closed doors for advocating anarchism, for holding eccentric religious beliefs, and for having said cash prizes were harmful to artists. The majority of other judges, who were anti-Russia, agreed with Wirsen, and passed over Tolstoi. Recently, a modern judge, Dr. Anders Osterling, apologized in private, saying, "Prudhomme got the 1st Nobel Prize because of the conservative makeup of the Academy at that time, because of Swedish nationalism, because politics made the committeemen purposely avoid Tolstoi.". . . Emile Zola, the 1st to be nominated for the 1st award, was also voted down by the judges because he was "too daring"--and Nobel had not liked his novels.

1902 Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), German. Work: History of Rome.

Behind the Award--Herbert Spencer, the British philosopher who died the next year, was the runner-up. The great Tolstoi was voted down again. Tolstoi said he did not mind, "because it saved me from the painful necessity of dealing in some way with money--generally regarded as very necessary and useful, but which I regard as the source of every kind of evil." Tolstoi lived until 1910, and was ignored in 9 consecutive Nobel votes.

1903 Bjornstjerne Bjornson (1832-1910), Norwegian. Work: Sunny Hill; Beyond Human Power.

Behind the Award--In his lifetime, Nobel admired Bjornson's work, so the judges were guided by his hand from the grave. In this vote they rejected Henrik Ibsen because his writings were "too realistic" and not full of idealism.

1904 Frederic Mistral (1830-1914), French. Work: Mireio.

Behind the Award--Mistral would have won it all by himself, according to unpublished notes on a history of the Academy made by a Swedish judge, "but before the final decision was made, his narrative in verse, Mireio, happened to be published in a decidedly inferior Swedish translation which, unfortunately, had been made by a member of the Academy, and the final voting resulted in an unhappy compromise which split the prize."

Jose Echegaray (1832-1916), Spanish. Work: Great Go-Between.

Behind the Award--This Spanish dramatist won while Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad were ignored. In fact, Hardy was passed over in every vote until his death in 1928, and Conrad in every vote until he died in 1924.

1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), Polish. Work: Quo Vadis.

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