Of prizes and prize commentary

Posted Oct. 16, 2009, at 8:34 p.m.

Upon hearing that President Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize last week, former Polish President Lech Walesa, the 1983 winner, is reported by The Associated Press to have said, “So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is only beginning to act.”

Walesa’s blunt assessment seemed to be shared by many, including Obama himself. But a joke that soon began to circulate on the Internet puts the matter into an even more workaday perspective than did Walesa for commoners who might have wondered what all the fuss over Obama’s selection was about.

“Breaking news: Obama wins the Heisman Trophy after watching a college football game,”’ was the zinger that pretty much summed up the deal. It’s difficult to state the case more succinctly than that.

Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are awarded by Swedish institutions, the peace prize is given out by a committee of five lefties chosen by the Norwegian Parliament and routinely goes to anyone but former President George W. Bush.

There were those, mostly disgruntled Republicans, who suggested that Obama should reject the prize, much as a disdainful Chicago Cubs bleacher bum — in a magnificent display of contempt for the enemy, and cheered on by his buddies — might hurl back onto the playing field a baseball that a slugger on the opposing team has just poleaxed over the fence for a home run.

In choosing Obama, the Norwegian Nobel Committee cited his creation of “a new climate in international politics.” Obama has pledged to donate to charity the million dollars in walking-around money that accompanies the prize.

History shows that such high-octane prizes have been rejected by previous nominees and the world has not stopped turning on its axis as a result. In 1926, author and playwright Sinclair Lewis, arguably one of America’s greatest novelists, rejected a Pulitzer Prize offered for his novel “Arrowsmith.” Lewis, whose writing focused on the conformity and boosterism of small-town life, cited several reasons for his nonacceptance, including his disagreement with contests praising one book or author over another in accordance with politically correct standards of the day.

Yet, four years later he accepted a Nobel Prize in literature, mainly for his novel “Babbitt,” but also for his work in general, which included the novels “Main Street” and “Elmer Gantry” and others.

Former Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken, not known for his modesty, wrote in the Evening Sun on May 20, 1926, that Lewis had refused the Pulitzer “at my instigation.” He argued that Lewis was “certainly justified in spurning the highly dubious accolade, and in protesting against the damage that its approval does to his reputation.” The column is included in “A Second Mencken Chrestomathy” published by Vintage Books in 1995.

“I believed and had often advised him [Lewis] that he should resolutely refuse all prizes, college degrees and other such empty honors, heaving them to the muckers who pulled wires for them,” Mencken wrote. “But the ambitious and go-getting Dorothy Thompson, his second wife, was avid for honors and attention, no matter how cheap, and when in 1930 they took the lordly form of the Nobel Prize, she naturally grabbed for it with loud hosannahs.”

Had he heard of the Nobel award in time, he’d have tried to induce Lewis to decline that prize, as well, Mencken stated, “for I had long been convinced that the Stockholm Academy, which chose the recipients of the prizes for literature, was a diligent player of politics.”

In criticizing the Pulitzer Prize, given for the American novel that best represents “the wholesome atmosphere of American life,” Mencken suggested the selection committee had shown in its eight years of existence “a complete incapacity to distinguish between work that is sound and honest in the novel and work that is cheap and false. Its imbecilities, repeated annually, cannot be accidental. Either the committee is bound by rules that prevent it making intelligent awards, or its members are incompetent.”

He apparently held the Swedish Nobel selection committee for literature of 80 years ago in the same low regard. I don’t know why the man didn’t just come out and say what was on his mind about such things, rather than beat around the bush so.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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