THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE will not be awarded this year. This hiatus—the result of allegations of sexual assault against the husband of a member of the Swedish Academy, which confers the award—will deprive us of more than just a winner. We will also miss out on the usual wrangling over who else deserved to, but did not, win. This is an annual, global ritual, and one with a surprisingly long history—seemingly as long as of the prize itself.
Take the case of Rabindranath Tagore. When he became the first Asian literature laureate in 1913, there were certainly many news stories extolling his poetry. Much was also made, though, of Thomas Hardy, the celebrated English novelist of rural life, being passed over. (He would never win.) The writer Gordon Ray Young, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, claimed that “the literature of the day abounds with work of splendid authors,” and provided a long list of poets, many now largely forgotten, who he felt were more worthy of the award.
Another controversial award came 25 years later, when the winner was Pearl Buck, an author who herself had an Asian connection. She was born in West Virginia but grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries, and later gained fame with a novel, The Good Earth, about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese farming family. Articles praised Buck’s skills and highlighted in particular her empathetic treatment of the Chinese protagonists of The Good Earth, then and still by far her most widely read book, which became a bestseller and inspired a hugely successful Hollywood movie. Other articles questioned whether Buck—the first American laureate and also the first winner with deep ties to China—was really a writer of the first rank. Some critics claimed that her work was more melodramatic, more middlebrow, or both, than a Nobel winner’s should be.
There were apparently many in Sweden, from where all the Nobel Prizes (apart from the Peace prize) are given, who thought another, competing author should have become the laureate in 1938: Frans Emil Sillanpää. This was the focus of a wire service report that ran in the New York Times, under the headline “Award Perturbs Swedes.” It referred to some “Swedish authors and critics” issuing “caustic” remarks about the Nobel selection committee, chastising its members for having “again overlooked” Sillanpää, the “long-standing Finnish candidate.” There was apparently less concern among the people of Finland over the decision to award the author of The Good Earth. The article, which carried the subheading, “But Finns Accept Naming of Mrs. Buck for Nobel Prize Calmly,” noted that Buck was “extensively read” in Finland, with 20,000 copies of a translation of The Good Earth in circulation—“an extraordinary record for a book” in Finland. (In any case, all Sillanpää’s fans had to do was wait one more year, as he was given the prize in 1939.)
Thirty years after Buck’s win, when Yasunari Kawabata became the first person born in East Asia to win the award, there were relatively few criticisms of his work, but reports on his win often mentioned various authors, better known in the West, who had been passed over. A Washington Post article, for instance, which ran under the headline “Japan Author Is Awarded Nobel Prize,” began by noting that Kawabata was “almost unknown in the West.” Then, before providing any details about his writing, it described Kawabata as having been selected “over such contenders as Norman Mailer of the United States, Andre Malraux of France, Britain’s Graham Greene and W.H. Auden, Alberto Moravia of Italy, Irish author Samuel Beckett, Rumanian-born Eugene Ionesco and Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler.” This is a lengthy list, but it possibly leaves off one important name—a writer born in Beijing who, at least according to a tale often repeated in China, was the actual favorite of the Nobel selection committee fifty years ago.
The author, the son of a Qing Dynasty palace guard, was born with one surname but soon adopted another: Shu. When he wrote, though, he did so under a nom de plume unrelated to either of these surnames. Made up of a character meaning “old” and a character meaning “house,” it is spelled out as Lao She in today’s standard Pinyin, but in the past was sometimes rendered as “Lao Shaw,” “Lau Sheh” or otherwise.
Some two decades before the 1968 Nobel Prize was announced, the writer rumoured to be a contender for it was in the United States. He was one of two prominent authors from China whom the US Department of State had invited to the country as part of a cultural exchange. While in the United States, Lao She became friends with, among other people, Pearl Buck and her husband, Richard Walsh, an influential publisher. Lao She had been published prolifically in Chinese by that point, making a name for himself with his novels and essays, but his work was only starting to be translated into English, sometimes poorly and without adequate remuneration. One thing he and Buck shared was a concern about securing effective literary representation for him, so that his interests would be protected. Buck wrote a letter to David Lloyd, a New York-based literary agent, on behalf of Lao She, who is today still best known in the West in connection with the one novel she mentioned in it, Rickshaw Boy (although recent English translations and reissues suggest a renewed interest in his other work).
The story about Lao She and the Nobel Prize, which seems to have originated with the author’s son Shu Yi, is that the selection committee had settled on Rickshaw Boy’s author as the 1968 winner. Out of five finalists, he received the most votes. The committee was then stymied by not knowing how to get in touch with the author. They were aware that he had never joined the Communist Party, despite his concern about how previous regimes had misruled China. They also knew that he had returned to the country from the United States soon after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, with Mao Zedong as its paramount leader. China’s contacts with the West had grown much more limited under Mao. Getting across to people in China in the mid-to-late 1960s was even harder than usual, since the country was in a state of turmoil because of the Cultural Revolution. This had started in 1966, with Red Guards—youths fiercely loyal to Mao—creating havoc on campuses, where they attacked all whom they deemed insufficiently true to the recent revolution and its leader. The Nobel selection committee, after failing to locate their first choice, ended up deciding on another candidate. At least according to legend, Lao She’s absence helped Kawabata win, as the committee was keen on giving the prize to an East Asian writer, and the Japanese author was the only one of the remaining four who fit the bill.
This story of the 1968 Nobel Prize may be a mix of fact and fiction, but two things are clear. One is that it is not far-fetched to imagine that Lao She would have been considered for the award, for he was highly regarded within Chinese literary circles and was well known outside China from the 1940s on. The other is that there is no way he could have won the award 50 years ago. It can only go to a living author, and, unbeknown to the Nobel Prize selection committee, Lao She had drowned two years earlier, after being bullied and beaten by groups of Red Guards, presumably committing suicide to escape further persecution.
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Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (2016). He is currently working on a book about the Boxer crisis.