For more than a century, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (originally the Pulitzer Prize for novels from 1918 to 1948) has honored some of the most groundbreaking and spellbinding pieces of modern American literature, including works from such visionary authors as Edith Wharton, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Junot Diaz. In the U.S. literary world, there is no greater honor.
Stretching across different genres and styles, Pulitzer Prize-winning books offer myriad gems of abiding wisdom. These works traverse the landscape of American history (and its possible future), from the glitz of the Gilded Age in Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” to the Dust Bowl devastation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The subjects often get to the heart of the American experience. Jeffrey Eugenides navigates the complexities of gender in 2002’s “Middlesex,” while novels such as Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” (1982) and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (2017) document the devastating effects of racism from differing viewpoints and time periods.
The following list compiles insightful and heartening quotes from 20 Pulitzer Prize winners, from some of the very first honored works to the very latest.
1919: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Whatever does not pretend at all has style enough.
Set in a fictionalized Indianapolis, “The Magnificent Ambersons” follows the decline of the wealthy Amberson family across three generations. The book was adapted into a silent film called “Pampered Youth” in 1925 and then a film directed by Orson Welles in 1942. It is full of wisdom, such as this quote speaking to integrity and authenticity. In a world where people try to fit in, being yourself is all the style one needs.
1920: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Ah, good conversation — there's nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.
Edith Wharton’s masterpiece “The Age of Innocence” follows protagonist Newland Archer as he attempts to reconcile his true feelings with the shallow and often misguided world in which he lives. This quote speaks to the collaborative power of the mind, suggesting that it’s in conversation with one another that we discover our best ideas.
1923: One of Ours by Willa Cather
Ruin and new birth; the shudder of ugly things in the past, the trembling image of beautiful ones on the horizon; finding and losing; that was life.
“One of Ours” takes a powerful look at America at the dawn of the 20th century. The main character, Claude Wheeler, typifies a young man looking to make his way in a changing country when the Great War engulfs the world. This quote succinctly describes the joys and sorrows of everyday life, suggesting events don’t just passively happen to us; they are life itself.
1925: So Big by Edna Ferber
About mistakes, it's funny. You've got to make your own; and not only that, if you try to keep people from making theirs, they get mad.”
“So Big” is a novel about mistakes. When Dirk, an architect turned stock broker, decides to abandon the pursuit of art in search of money, he’s warned of his mistake by his mother. Slowly, his life falls apart and he is ultimately left alone regretting his decision to pursue the superficial. In the end, he learns an important lesson — one he might never have learned without making his own mistakes.
1949: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past?
One of John Steinbeck’s most famous novels (and a beloved 1940 film directed by John Ford), “The Grapes of Wrath” focuses on struggling farmers during the Great Depression, who must uproot their lives to find a brighter future in California. This quote speaks to the importance of place and memory; as we move forward, we never forget where we came from.
1953: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.
A classic of high school English classes everywhere, “The Old Man and the Sea” is one of Ernest Hemingway’s last major works. The novella follows Santiago, an old fisherman who has gone 84 days without catching a fish, and then makes the catch of his life. This quote focuses on the power of a positive, solution-oriented outlook and the importance of living in the present.
1961: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is considered one of the greatest works of American fiction. Set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, the story is told through the eyes of six-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as her lawyer father, Atticus Finch, steadfastly defends a Black man from a gross injustice. This quote speaks to the prejudices in all of us, and the duty we have to fight against them.
1983: The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.
In 1983, Alice Walker became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, for her novel “The Color Purple.” The book gives an unforgiving look at the racism and misogyny embedded in American culture. Despite all the complexities of the narrative, this quote strips down the human experience to the barest essential — that everyone, no matter where they come from or who they are, just wants to be loved.
1988: Beloved by Toni Morrison
Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.
Toni Morrison’s most famous novel is dedicated to the “60 million and more” lives lost due to the Atlantic slave trade. Set only a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, the novel weaves together the horror of American slavery with traditional narrative elements of the horror genre, such as the haunting of a supernatural being named “Beloved.”
1994: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
What we fear we often rage against.
“The Shipping News” follows the life of Quoyle, who reaches the disastrous end of one stage of his life only to embark on a promising new chapter as he begins reporting on traffic accidents and the shipping news in Newfoundland, Canada. This quote speaks to the power of fear to unleash some of our strongest and darkest emotions.
1998: American Pastoral by Philip Roth
There is no force more powerful than that of an unbridled imagination.
“American Pastoral” follows its characters as they experience the societal convulsions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The nation becomes a metaphor for the characters in the novel, many of whom also have an untold number of secrets. However, this quote strikes a note of optimism and possibly offers a glimpse into Roth’s creative beliefs. Maybe that’s why many consider “American Pastoral” to be one of the best novels in American history.
2001: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
We have the idea that our hearts, once broken, scar over with an indestructible tissue that prevents their ever breaking again in quite the same place.
Set during the golden age of comic books in the 1930s and early 1940s, Chabon’s novel follows artist Joe Kavalier and writer Sammy Clay as they create “The Escapist,” a popular superhero. The story explores LGBTQ+ relationships, questions the convention of the “nuclear family,” and underlines the importance of authenticity and friendship.
2003: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.
“Middlesex” follows the life (and family) of Cal Stephanides, an intersex man, as he grows up and evolves amid the contradictions embedded in the American experience. This quote tackles the distinction of biology versus life, a major theme of the novel.
2006: March by Geraldine Brooks
Who is the brave man — he who feels no fear? If so, then bravery is but a polite term for a mind devoid of rationality and imagination.
“March” is a companion novel to Louisa May Alcott’s famous book “Little Women.” It follows the life of the father of Alcott’s characters as he fights in the Civil War. This quote speaks to the experience of being a soldier, and reminds us that bravery doesn’t refer to the absence of fear, but to righteous action in the face of it.
2007: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.
Not many post-apocalyptic novels snag the Pulitzer, but Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is an exception. In a dark future where an unknown calamity has laid waste to the planet, a father and son try to survive in an unforgiving world. Here, the fire that warms them is a symbol for the hope inside them, no matter how bad things get.
2008: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
You can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.
In this novel, Junot Diaz tells the story of a Dominican family living in New Jersey. Entering the mind of his young protagonist, Oscar de León, Diaz weaves the language of comic books, fantasy, and science fiction throughout the novel. The book is full of wisdom like this line speaking to the inevitability of facing our fears.
2001: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
We have some history together that hasn’t happened yet.
More of a collection of 13 short stories than a traditional novel, “A Visit From the Good Squad” explores all the myriad ways and strange directions one’s life can go. These words suggest the importance of an open mind; a complete stranger can become someone closer, who changes the trajectory of your life.
2014: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
"When you feel homesick," he said, “just look up. Because the moon is the same wherever you go."
“The Goldfinch” is a coming-of-age tale that begins when 13-year-old Theodore Decker must confront the horrors of his mother’s violent death. Abandoned by his father and longing for his life before the tragedy, Decker embodies these words. He searches for comfort in the constants around us, even those we often take for granted.
2017: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.
Colson Whitehead earned his first Pulitzer Prize (he won again with “The Nickel Boys” in 2020) for “The Underground Railroad,” which tells the story of the famous smuggling system that freed enslaved people before the Civil War — only this time, it’s an actual railroad. These words tell us that sometimes our beliefs don’t square with our reality, but that positive “delusion” can lead us in the right direction, whether in the search of justice, peace, or happiness.
2019: The Overstory by Richard Powers
This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.
Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” is filled with the existential dread of climate change, especially how warming temperatures and human activity threaten Earth’s most distinctive feature: its trees. This quote speaks to our tendency to put humanity at the center of the planet’s story, even though that narrative isn’t true. In reality, we all have a responsibility to respect the natural world we live in.
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