Intrigued, I continued reading. According to the World Almanac Roberts consulted (a Pulitzer property, he notes), Pulitzer wanted to honor "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." Wholesome? High American standards? Writing at a time of proletarian chic, Roberts went on to list a series of prize-winning books that had little wholesome or even American about them.
I found that the original playwriting criteria were similar. According to a 1918 New York Times report on early Pulitzer winners, the drama prize was meant for the New York-produced play that "shall best represent the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standard of good morals, good taste and good manners."
The current Pulitzer Web site makes some note of its board "growing less conservative over the years in matters of taste," adding: "In 1963 the drama jury nominated Edward Albee's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,' but the board found the script insufficiently `uplifting,' a complaint that related to arguments over sexual permissiveness and rough dialogue. In 1993 the prize went to Tony Kushner's 'Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,' a play that dealt with problems of homosexuality and AIDS and whose script was replete with obscenities."
Well, as long as it was "replete."
Regarding editorial writing (the commentary prize didn't kick in until later), the original criteria were more nebulous -- "the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction."
Maybe some of the first Prize winners, a pair of 1917 editorials from the Louisville Courier-Journal, can clue us in to what that "right direction" was. Written in support of U.S. involvement in World War I, one is called "Vae Victis" -- Woe to the Vanquished -- and the other, "War Has Its Compensations."
I think it's safe to say the Pulitzer Prize wasn't dreamed up for Lefties.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Roberts somehow garnered his well-deserved Pulitzer -- two months before he died in 1957.