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Sully Prudhomme, Leo Tolstoy, and the First Nobel Prize

By Kristin Masters. Mar 14, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Nobel Prize Winners, History

When the inaugural Nobel Prize in literature was awarded in 1901, it went to the now relatively unknown Sully Prudhomme. Born on March 16, 1839, Prudhomme was a French poet and essayist who eschewed the Romantic movement. Loosely connected to the Parnassus school, Prudhomme desired to create a scientific poetry for his era. According to the Nobel committee, the prize was given"in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect."


Leo Tolstoy was also up for the award that year. The Russian author was passed over because of his eccentric religious perspective and espousal of anarchism. The committee wanted a less controversial figure for the very first Nobel Prize, but the decision didn't sit well with the artistic community--or even many members of the committee. Following the decision, Tolstoy received a letter from a group of Swedish artists and critics who were disappointed--and perhaps even a bit scandalized--by the committee's decision: 

To Leo Tolstoy:


With regard to the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature for the first time, we, the undersigned authors, artists, and critics, wish to express our admiration for you. In specific, we see in your person not only the most revered patriarch of today's literature, but also for us the greatest and most profound poet who, in our opinion, should have been the first to be thought of, even if you yourself never strove for this sort of reward. We feel ourselves very much called upon to let you know that, as a consequence of its current membership, we consider the institution which has control over said Prize reflects neither the view of the artists nor of public opinion. It must not be other countries' impression that art which comes from free-thinkers and freely creative persons, even among our remotely residing citizens, is not appreciated as of the finest quality and of a status greater than all others.


George Nordensvan
Gustaf Janson
August Strindberg
P. Staaff
Per Hallström
Axel Lundegård
Oscar Levertin
Gustaf af Geijerstam
Karl-Erik Forsslund
Hilma Angered-Strandberg
Ellen Key
Hellen Lindgren
Nils Kreuger
Anders Zorn
Acke Andersson
Karl Nordström
Robert Thegerström
Albert Engström
Carl Larsson
Andreas Hallén
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger
Selma Lagerlöf
Otto Sylwan
Sven Söderman
Tor Hedberg
Klas Fåhraeus
Verner v. Heidenstam
Henning Berger
Hjalmar Söderberg
Daniel Fallström
Henning v. Melsted
Edv. Alkman
Georg Pauli
Richard Bergh
Christian Eriksson
Oscar Björck
Eugène Jansson
Gustaf Wickman
Bruno Liljefors
Emil Sjögren
Wilh. Stenhammar
Tor Aulin


In 1902, Tolstoy was again passed over for the prize; the Nobel committee awarded it to Theodor Mommson. Losing out on the prize didn't seem to bother Tolstoy much. In fact, he said "it saved me the painful necessity of dealing in some way with the money...generally regarded as very necessary and useful, but which I regard as the source of every kind of evil." Despite Tolstoy's own conciliatory reaction, the furor continued. A Swedish newspaper published an editorial in 1902 calling the the Nobel committee "unfair craftsmen and literature amateurs." 

Three years later Tolstoy published Great Sin. Though now mostly forgotten, the novel recounts the difficult life of a Russian peasant. The Russian Academy of Sciences decided that the work truly enhanced Tolstoy's standing as a writer, so they decided to nominate him again for the Nobel Prize. The nomination letter was approved by all of Russia's outstanding academic institutions and was accompanied by a copy of Great Sin

But Tolstoy still genuinely wanted nothing to do with the prize. The moment he learned of the nomination, he took up a pen for himself. Tolstoy wrote to his friend Arvid Jarnefelt, a Finnish writer. He entreated Jarnefelt, "“If it was meant to happen, then it would be very unpleasant for me to refuse from it. That is why, I have a favor to ask. If you have any links in Sweden (I think you have), please try to make it so I would not be awarded with the prize. Please, try to do the best you can to avoid the award of the prize to me.” Whether Jarnefelt intervened or the committee had designs of its own, Tolstoy didn't win the prize. Giosuè Carducci did. 

Should the committee have made a different decision? 


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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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