The upset among fiction publishers over the Pulitzer Prizes this week reminded me of a post I prepared some time ago and have never published, till now:
In 1945, the Pulitzer Prize committee judged British poet W.H. Auden to have published "by far" the best book of poetry, but the prize went to a book by Karl Shapiro for political reasons. Shapiro was said to be “one of us”-- he was in uniform, while Auden was said to have communist antiwar leanings.
Auden, an Englishman living in the U.S., went into military service in 1945, and won the prize in 1948.
The frankly-political judgments were recorded in papers from the 1945 Pulitzer Prize deliberations held at Columbia University toward the end of World War II. Columbia released the documents to me for research on a book I’m doing about the places Shapiro served in the war, Australia and New Guinea.
Everyone in this story is dead. Auden died in 1973. Shapiro died in 2000.
The Pulitzer poetry jury of three men met in late February 1945. Then on March 6, 1945, the head of the jury, Yale English professor Wilbur Cross (who was also a former governor of Connecticut) sent two letters to Columbia Provost Frank Fackenthal. One "Dear Mr. Fackenthal" letter was the official jury report. The other "Dear Mr. Fackenthal" was a personal cover letter containing political judgments.
Auden’s book “For the Time Being” was “by far the most distinguished of the group,” the official report said, then it went on to say that the next best book was “V-Letter and Other Poems,” by Karl Shapiro, who was serving in the army in the Pacific.
Shapiro has not the technical skill of Auden in versification. But he writes well in a straight-forward natural manner. Auden addresses the intellect, Shapiro addresses the emotions.
The other Dear Mr. Fackenthal letter from Cross undermined the judgment in the report. Cross wrote:
Auden has been classed by some critics as a communist on the score of his earlier poems. He has indeed been very severe on contemporary English society. He has fought for the underdog. In the beginning he posed as a revolutionist like Shelley.
Members of the Jury indulged in a long discussion on Auden...
Among the factors the jury weighed, Cross said, was the fact that Auden had won a prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters “… and perhaps it would be better to settle on Shapiro who is ‘one of us’’”
A few days later, Cross sent Fackenthal a third letter (responding to a letter from the provost that is not in the file). This letter described Auden as a British poet and Shapiro as an American "through and through" but harped on political themes:
You are right, I think, in your inference from my personal letter to you that the Pulitzer Poety Jury ‘would be just as well content to make the award to Shapiro and leave Auden for a later award.’ This is decidedly my own view...
Shapiro is in active service in this war. Auden is keeping aloof from it for reasons I do not know. Incidently [sic] he several times touches upon the war in a volume of poems entitled Another Time, published in 1941. There he writes:
"Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return."
Most sincerely yours, Wilbur Cross
Auden was never a communist. He never joined the Communist Party, declaring himself a “bourgeois,” but he flirted openly with communism in the 1930s, according to W.H. Auden, A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter. “Communism is the only political theory that really holds the Christian position of absolute equality in value of every individual," Auden said then. In 1932 he wrote a poem called “A Communist to Others." At that time, his friend Christopher Isherwood wrote, “He now outwardly supported Marxism," and the writer Harold Nicolson recorded in his diary that Auden did a poetry reading for English friends that was “not so much a defence of communism as an attack upon all the ideas of comfort and complacency which will make communism difficult to achieve in this country.”
In March 1945, a month after the jury's deliberations, Auden applied to join the American armed forces, as part of a “United States Strategic Bombing Survey” in Germany, according to Carpenter's biography. Auden became a major in the U.S. army as a “Bombing Research Analyst in the Morale Division." He then spent several months in Europe interviewing civilians.
Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety, published in 1947, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
I know that sounds conspiratorial. But it should be pointed out that at least one member of the Pulitzer jury leaked. Louis Untermeyer called Shapiro's promoter and girlfriend (and later wife), Evalyn Katz, to give her the news that Shapiro had won, though he swore her to secrecy (Shapiro tells the story in his autobiography). Possibly a juror told Auden about the judgment against him?
I. I told this story to David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English literature at Yale, who has written extensively on modern poetry. He said that by whatever means, the Pulitzer Committee may have reached the right literary judgment:
As a matter of purely literary judgment, the Columbia archive letters you paraphrase might be said to have arrived at the right judgment for the wrong reason. But they are misinformed about Auden in every possible way.
(1) He supported the war against Hitler--though without pomp or righteous accusation. The lines,
"Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return"
are about the Versailles arrangements and their consequences; his sense of the deeper-lying causes of the war comes through in some other lines of "September 1, 1939":Accurate scholarship canUnearth the whole offenceFrom Luther until nowThat has driven a culture mad,Find what occurred at Linz,What huge imago madeA psychopathic god.(2) Auden was never a Communist, and by 1945 he hardly considered himself a man of the Left (though he published in The Nation and The New Republic). He had become a high Anglican in religion.In giving the award to Shapiro, the judges were, oddly, recognizing Auden in some way. Shapiro had earned a reputation as a proficient follower of Auden--the sort of gifted disciple who brings out the hidden resources of a fresh poetic style.I'm not sure which of the two I would have voted for; there's a case to be made that V-Letter and Other Poems is a better book than For the Time Being. The latter is a virtuoso piece of writing, a Christmas Oratorio in the modernist idiom, sustained for several hundred lines, cast in prose as well as verse. (One precedent: Murder in the Cathedral.)But I think Shapiro was a pretty wonderful, energetic poet in his first two volumes: Person, Place and Thing and V-Letter and Other Poems. Shapiro's war poems--including "Troop Train," "Full Moon: New Guinea," and "Elegy for a Dead Soldier"-- are the only poems of the Second World War that anyone remembers now, except a few by Randall Jarrell (who didn't see combat) and three by Louis Simpson: "Carentan O Carentan," "The Battle," and "The Runner." F.O. Matthiessen's Oxford Book of American Verse (1950), the best anthology ever made of American poetry, includes several poems from V-Letter.
II. The prize established young Shapiro’s career. Though he later called it a “Golden Albatross” and derided the prize as a middlebrow honor, it assured him employment. Writing about himself in the third person, 45 years later (in Reports of My Death), he said, “He would always be able to get lectures, even jobs, even good jobs, doing what he wanted in and around poetry, and he wouldn’t have to sit behind a librarian’s desk answering silly questions about how to address a duchess or which zoos keep unicorns.”