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Nobel Prize in Literature: Winners & Works

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is an internationally recognized award for those whose works not only challenge the field, but all of humanity. In this lesson, take a look at a few notable laureates, and see how their examples shaped the world.

The Nobel Prize in Literature

What's the best way to commemorate a man who invented new ways to blow things up? How about a prize for literature? Alfred Nobel, the 19th-century inventor of dynamite, was very concerned about the legacy he'd leave behind in this world. So, he left a fortune in his will to establish a prize program for those who achieved something marvelous. To this day, the Nobel Prize in Literature remains one of the most prestigious awards in the world. There have been over a hundred total recipients, but here are a few names you really should know.

Sully Prudhomme: 1901

Every award has someone who won it first. For the Nobel Prize in Literature, that person is Sully Prudhomme. Prudhomme was a French poet, whose lofty and elegant prose communicated a world of idealism, hope, emotion, and intellectual sophistication, which was exactly what the Nobel Committee wanted in its first prize recipient. He used the prize money to establish a fund to help young French poets publish their works.

Sully Prudhomme
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Selma Lagerlof: 1909

Next on our list of firsts is Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof. In 1909, Lagerlof became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This was a big deal, as the Nobel Prize has long been a symbol of equality through achievement. Lagerlof's writings were based in folk tales and infused with imaginative prose at a time when realism reigned supreme. Like Prudhomme, she is remembered for idealism and emotion, as well as intellectualism.

One of the books by Selma Lagerlof, published a few years before her award
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Rabindranath Tagore: 1913

Equality extends in multiple directions. The early Nobel Prize winners were Europeans; Rabindranath Tagore broke that trend in 1913. An Indian musician and poet, Tagore was the first non-ethnically European laureate, and his award helped raise greater awareness of the value of non-Western arts and literature. Tagore won for his mixed Bengali and English-language poems, which helped mediate the first major introduction of Indian literature into the West. In this sense, his work was seen as humanitarian, an effort at global peace well worth recognition.

Ernest Hemingway: 1954

In the world of fine arts, Europeans of the 20th century and earlier tended to look down on the United States of America. It was only with the work of extraordinary geniuses that the Old World came to respect the New. Of these geniuses, few stand out in literature greater than Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is ranked amongst the greatest novelists of all time, whose works helped redefine modern literature in the 20th century. For his lifetime of work, and specifically his masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea, he received the Nobel Prize in 1954.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: 1970

Literature has power. That's something that Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Committee wanted the world to see, and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn provided an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist living in the USSR, who wrote stories centered around the labor camps of the Soviet Union. By focusing on these locales over single heroes or heroines, Solzhenitsyn combined traditional Russian literature with novel ideas, and showed the world the horror and abuse of the gulags. The USSR was very secretive about these camps, but Solzhenitsyn helped expose the abuse of human rights to the world.

Gabriel García Márquez: 1982

Literature can also bring us together, define us. In 1982, the Nobel Committee awarded its literature prize to Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. So, what did García Márquez do? He basically invented the literary genre that defined Latin America at the time. Think that's worth a prize? Known as magical realism, this style embodies the mixture of tragedy and fantasy that comprises Latin American history and nationality. Gabriel García Márquez's novels helped define this style, and legitimize a distinctly Latin American sense of nationalism and identity, one unapologetically unique from those of Europe or the USA.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
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