Commentary Magazine


The Nobel Prize by Burton Feldman

The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige
by Burton Feldman
Arcade. 489 pp. $29.95

In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist who made his fortune by inventing and selling dynamite, left to posterity a sizable prize fund, stipulating that it be used each year to recognize those individuals “who shall have contributed most materially to benefit mankind.” Today, the Nobel Prize is the most prestigious and coveted award in the world. It is the undisputed arbiter of greatness in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace—the five fields specified by Nobel—as well as in economics, which was added in 1968. Winners earn not just a gold medal and a great sum of money—more than $900,000 last year—but also a considerable measure of intellectual and moral authority. “The awards seem almost to issue not from mere Stockholm,” Burton Feldman writes in his engaging and comprehensive history, “but from some timeless Realm of Objective Judgment.”

Feldman, a professor of English recently retired from the University of Denver, celebrates the genuinely outstanding achievements that the Nobel Prize has so often served to recognize. But he is wary of the award’s unparalleled influence—and its carefully cultivated image of critical rigor. As he ably demonstrates, considerations other than mere excellence have long played a role in the bestowal of the world’s most sought-after laurel.

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It is not easy to explain the success of the Nobel Prize. The Templeton Prize for progress in religion is more lucrative, and the Fields Medal in mathematics, awarded just once every four years, is harder to win. Moreover, the institutions that administer Nobel’s legacy—three Swedish academies and the Norwegian parliament—are not otherwise thought to possess any special competence in discerning the heights of human achievement.

What, then, accounts for the prize’s prestige? Feldman gives much of the credit to the grand ambitions of Nobel himself, who wished to honor excellence without regard to national or disciplinary boundaries. Against the balkanizing tendencies of the modern intellectual world, Nobel established “the first important regular prize to include not only the arts and sciences, but also politics in the form of ‘peace.’ ” Nor has it hurt that during this century of astonishing scientific progress, the prize’s recipients for chemistry, physics, and physiology constitute a “steady procession of greatness,” from Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg to James Watson and Francis Crick.

Nonetheless, Feldman shows, the Nobel’s track record is far from unblemished, even in the vaunted picks for science. During the prize’s early years, for instance, the kingmaker on both the physics and chemistry juries was Svante Arrhenius, the most famous scientist in Sweden. He backed the physical chemists in their turf war against organic chemists and helped shut geo-and astrophysics out of serious prize consideration. Such prejudices have diminished, but even so, neither the astronomer Edwin Hubble, whose observations provided evidence for the expansion of the universe, nor the geologist Alfred Wegener, who proposed the theory of continental drift, ever won the prize. In addition to oversights like these, there have been several questionable recipients, like Maurice Wilkins, who shared the 1962 prize with Watson and Crick despite having contributed little to uncovering the structure of DNA. He was included, Feldman reports, because of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of a previous laureate who considered Wilkins the victim of “frightfully bad luck.”

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Whatever the shortcomings of the science prizes, however, worse by far have been the selections for literature. Over the years the Nobel juries have ignored, among many others, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Robert Frost. Such injustices, Feldman insists, cannot be blamed on a surfeit of deserving writers. In 1901, the first year of the prize, Tolstoy’s greatness was widely recognized; yet the award went to Sully Prudhomme, “as forgettable a poet as can be found in the Nobel’s long list of mediocrities.”

The trouble, in Feldman’s view, is that the Swedish academy responsible for the literature prize has never been able to transcend its own cultural prejudices. In the early years of the prize, when those biases were “spiritualized and conservative,” Tolstoy was dismissed for his “abhorrent” religious sympathies, Ibsen for his “highly adventurous” views on “ethical-sexual questions,” and Hardy for portraying a God Who lacked “any sense of justice or mercy.” More recently, as Feldman is hardly the first to observe, the outlook of the jurors has been “politicized and liberal.”

In 1967, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias may not have been the best writer of his day, but he was, as his Nobel citation explained, an ardent foe of tyranny, slavery, injustice, and the American trusts—which no doubt explains why he had been awarded the USSR’s Lenin Peace Prize just a year earlier. Or consider the 1997 laureate, Dario Fo, a kind of postmodern performance artist who arguably was not engaged in literature at all but whose candidacy did have one inestimable advantage: the Catholic Church objected to his work, and the Italian authorities had tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to prosecute him.

No wonder, Feldman writes, that the “world’s most prestigious literary award has become widely seen as a political one—a peace prize in literary disguise.” But as for that peace prize itself, Feldman finds little to criticize. True, Nobel’s explicit intention to recognize strictly international good deeds has given way since 1960 to an emphasis on “efforts for peace within a nation.” But this, in Feldman’s estimation, has been a bold and revitalizing step, resulting in the recognition of such courageous worthies as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama.

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Indeed, looking at the Nobel enterprise as a whole, Feldman believes that it is “healthier” now than at any time in its 100-year history. Whatever the flaws of the prizes, he concludes, “they make us a bit more open to or reverent of greatness.” But is that true?

The problem is not just that several of the awards have become subservient to politics, though Feldman might have said a great deal more about the influence of racial and ethnic concerns on the literature prize in recent decades and the transformation of the peace prize into an endorsement of the liberal cause du jour, even when that cause has been embodied by such dubious heroes as Mikhail Gorbachev and, worse, Yasir Arafat. The more serious charge against the awards for peace and literature alike is that they have seemingly given up on the idea that excellence forges its own criterion, independent of ideology or political fashion. In this respect, the prizes do not “make us a bit more . . . reverent of greatness”; they make us a lot more cynical. Nothing could be farther from the intentions of Alfred Nobel, which have been traduced to a greater extent than Feldman cares to admit.

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