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Alfred Nobel's Gift to the World

On this day in 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament. The four-page document contained less than a page explaining the prize that would bear his name. A scientist, writer, and political activist, Nobel sought to encourage exceptional work in several fields: physics, medicine, chemistry, peace, and literature.

Alfred Nobel

A Brief History of the Nobel Prize

Nobel had built a vast fortune thanks to his scientific discoveries and inventions, most notably dynamite. Toward the end of his life, he found himself one of the wealthiest men in Europe. Unmarried and childless, Nobel dedicated his fortune to the same intellectual pursuits that had occupied his life. When Nobel died on December 10, 1896, his surviving relatives were disappointed in the contents of his will, and a legal battle ensued. Thus, the first Nobel Prizes were not awarded until 1901.

Controversial Choices in Literature

This would  be the first of many controversies associated with the prize; the latest occurred just this weekend, when 2009 Nobel laureate Herta Müller said that naming Chinese Writer Mo Yan this year's winner in literature was "a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights." Yet Muller herself was a hotly contested choice for the prize. According to the notes of the Nobel Committee, the category of literature has indeed been one of the most controversial, perhaps because it requires such subjectivity.

  • WH Auden may have missed out on a Nobel Prize because he made a few mistakes when he translated a work by 1961 Peace prize winner Dag Hammarskjöld and implied that the laureate may be homosexual.
  • Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won in 1970, but he feared he would not be allowed to reenter the Soviet Union if he left to attend the award ceremony. The Swedish government declined to hold a public award ceremony, so Solzhenitsyn refused the award. He changed his mind four years later, only after the Soviet Union banished him.
  • Literary heavyweights Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, and Saul Bellow were all denied prizes in 1974. Instead, two relatively unknown Swedish authors, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson won a joint prize. The two also both happened to be Nobel judges. Bellow would go on to win in 1976.
  • In 1997 both Arthur Miller and Salman Rushdie were passed over for the prize because the committee found them "too predictable, too popular." Instead, the award went to performance artist Dario Fo, whose work was often seen as too inconsequential to merit such a great honor as the Nobel.
  • Harold Pinter's award (2005) was delayed, presumably due to the resignation of Knut Ahnlund (over the committee's choice of Elfriede Jelinek) This renewed concern over the politics of the Swedish Academy. Pinter delivered his Nobel Lecture, "Art, Truth and Politics" via video. Concern over politics was also expressed with regard to Orhan Pamuk (2006) and Doris Lessing (2007).
Despite these hiccups, the Nobel Prize remains the most prestigious literary award in the world. Many collectors of rare books build their collections around a single Nobel laureate, or around the category of Nobel winners. The value of prize winners' books often increases over time, as winning the prize often brings greater visibility and increases popularity.

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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