A consortium of book-publishing groups sponsored the first annual National Book Awards ceremony on March 15, 1950 in New York City. Their mission was “to enhance the public’s awareness of exceptional books written by fellow Americans, and to increase the popularity of reading in general.” Since then, the National Book Awards have become America’s most prestigious literary prizes, recognizing achievements in four separate genres: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. The winners are selected by a five-member panel of judges, and are given $10,000 in cash and a crystal sculpture.
During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, a host of writers were honored who crossed the political and cultural spectrum. James Dickey, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Wallace Stevens won in the arena of poetry. William Faulkner and Walker Percy took honors for their fiction. All were men of arguably conservative sensibilities, even if not notably political. Prominent liberals also were recognized, among them Rachel Carson, Ralph Ellison, George Kennan, Archibald MacLeish and William Shirer. The ecumenical representation of both conservatives and liberals suggested the absence of political or cultural litmus tests.
Things began to change in the mid-1960s as the radical left began mobilizing against American power and the Vietnam War. In 1966, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. won for his adoring portrait of the short-lived Kennedy administration, A Thousand Days. In 1968, liberal icon George Kennan was honored for his memoirs. In 1969, Norman Mailer‘s Armies of the Night, an anti-Vietnam War memoir, captured a National Book Award. Increasingly, the National Book Awards were becoming an exercise in political as much as literary judgment.
Erik H. Erikson was honored in 1970 for his work on Gandhi and his non-violent techniques, a politically correct stance in the midst of the anti-war movement. Other winners included James MacGregor Burns for his flattering biography of Franklin Roosevelt, The Soldier of Freedom; France Fitzgerald for Fire in the Lake, a book that glorified the Viet Cong; former communist and leftist Lillian Hellman for her memoir, An Unfinished Woman; and Joseph Lash for Eleanor and Franklin.
This trend toward liberal and leftist perspectives continued over the next two decades. Winners included Alan Brinkley, Malcolm Cowley, Thomas Friedman, Peter Gay, Allen Ginsberg, Irving Howe, Murray Kempton, Robert Jay Lifton, Peter Matthiessen, Edmund Morris, Joyce Carol Oates, Adrienne Rich, Arthur Schlesinger again (for another Kennedy portrait), Susan Sontag, Ronald Steel, Barbara Tuchman, Victor Navasky, and Alice Walker, to name just a few.
Not only are many of these authors left or liberal in their views, but so is the subject matter of the writings that won them their National Book Awards. For instance, there are biographies of Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys, Walter Lippmann, Huey Long, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Norman Thomas. There are multiple studies on Western complicity in the slave trade. There are critical accounts of the dropping of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, and the failures of the American system to deal with seemingly intractable social ills, but very little that celebrates Western contributions to freedom and democracy. No prominent conservative or Republican person is even the subject of a winning book save Theodore Roosevelt (who was ideologically a progressive), though a number of authors are honored in the nonfiction categories for their critical reviews of the U.S. role in Vietnam—Fitzgerald and Mailer being joined by James Carroll (An American Requiem), Gloria Emerson (Winners and Losers), and Neil Sheehan (The Bright Shining Lie).
In the 1990s, virtually every nonfiction winner was written by liberals or noted leftists: Edward Ball, former Village Voice writer, for Slaves in the Family (1998); Robert Caro, for Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (2002); James Carroll for An American Requiem (1996); John Dower, for Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1999); Harvard University’s Orlando Patterson, for his book Freedom (1991); Tina Rosenberg, for The Haunted Land (1995); and Gore Vidal, for his collection of essays, United States (1993).
Since the 1960s, there has been only than a smattering of conservative writers, historians or thinkers to win National Book Awards. Robert Nozick, for instance, was honored in 1975 for Anarchy, State and Utopia. Henry Kissinger won in 1980 for White House Years. One could argue that Tom Wolfe, who won for Right Stuff, has conservative leanings. Likewise, though Fox Butterfield wrote for the liberal New York Times, his book, China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, was an honest portrait of life under communism’s oppressive rule. Carlos Eire, who won for his book, Waiting for Snow in Havana, did not hesitate to observe during his acceptance speech that he would be imprisoned for his writings were he still in Cuba. Bill Buckley won not for his political commentary, but for his mystery, Stained Glass. David Horowitz and Peter Collier earned a nomination for their book on the Rockefellers, but that was before their turn to the political right.
From the mid-1960s through 2004, of the approximately 90 writers honored by the National Book Awards in nonfiction categories for books that dealt with historical, political or political culture matters, only three or four could be called conservative. More than 60 had clear ties to leftist/liberal causes or concerns.
A review of the National Book Award judges from 2001-2004 turned up a disproportionate representation of writers with alternative or left to liberal perspectives: Alex Kotlowitz, whose book, There Are No Children Here, documents life in a Chicago housing project; Richard Rodriguez, a liberal commentator for the Public Broadcasting System; Christine Stansell, a Princeton professor whose history on the Bohemians includes a romantic portrait of John Reed, Emma Goldman and other communists; and Terry Tempest Williams, a prominent pro-environment activist from Utah. Others included Gail Buckley, author and daughter of entertainer Lena Horne; Lawrence Jackson, professor at Emory University; Mary Karr, a professor at Syracuse University; Michael Kinsley, currently the Editorial, Op-Ed and Letters Pages Editor of the Los Angeles Times; and Jonathon Kirsch, book editor of the Los Angeles Times. The only judge with any clear connections to conservatism was Terry Teachout, who has written for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary, and who edited a collection of Whittaker Chambers’ journalism.
Much of this profile is adapted from the article “Political Prize: The National Book Award,” written by George Shadroui and published by FrontPageMag.com on March 5, 2004.