Abbrianna MacGregor

Literary Genius: A Brief History of the Nobel Prize

Abbrianna MacGregor

I have always been labeled a bookworm. I found a home in literary realms, and poured everything I had into trying to emulate the magic I experienced into my own writing. I vividly remember the surge of pride I felt in high school when I won an award for my dedication and performance in all things English related. It’s easy for writers to become discouraged throughout the creative process, but being reminded that your work is appreciated makes it all worthwhile. If I felt validated by winning a high school English award, I can only imagine how it must feel to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. As I lost myself in wondering what this honor would be like, curiosity guided me to uncover a bit more about its history.

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish inventor who created dynamite, hoping it would put an end to war. By the time of his death in 1896, Nobel owned 355 patents for his ideas. The first five Nobel Prizes came into existence through directions detailed in Nobel’s will to offer the awards to the best in their fields (i.e., chemistry, literature, medicine, peace or physics). The Nobel Prize in Literature was intended for the “most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Nobel’s instructions in his will rejected any consideration for the nationality of candidates and intended for judges to base the candidates off pure literary quality and social impact.

Despite the purity of Nobel’s intentions, different time periods held a heavy influence over how the award was granted. The first years (1901–1912) of the Nobel Prize in Literature were distinctly conservative, typically favoring works with religious affiliations. During World War I, a policy of neutrality was established, favoring literature from the small countries that remained neutral during the war. Each new decade seems to have had its own theme. The ’20s brought a broader view of what it meant to be “ideal;” the ’30s focused on reader accessibility; and, beginning in the ’40s, the award valued writers who pioneered through uncharted territory. As time progresses, so do the ways in which literature is evaluated and valued.

The first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Sully Prudhomme, a French poet, in 1901 for “a rare combination of both heart and intellect” demonstrated in his work. Over the years, a few recipients have surprised the public. Most recently, Bob Dylan won the award for his lyrical contributions to and influence on the music industry.

Dylan receiving the award means the Nobel Committee for Literature accepts his lyrics as poetry, an unprecedented breakthrough in literary judgment. This proves that the boundaries that once defined the award are broadly expanding, leaving room for all kinds of writers to attain the prestigious status. Dylan’s win symbolizes endless possibilities for who might receive the award in the future.

Did You Know?

A native of England, Doris Lessing was the oldest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature at 88 years old in 2007. Her novel The Golden Notebook published in 1962, positioned her as a socially conscious feminist role model.

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