FIRST AWARDS. 1950 National Book Award Winners William Carlos Williams (left), Nelson Algren (second from right), and Ralph L. Rusk (far right), with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the first National Book Awards Ceremony.
HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS
On March 16, 1950, publishers, editors, writers, and critics gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to celebrate the first annual National Book Awards. The American Book Publishers Council, the Book Manufacturers’ Institute and the American Booksellers Association jointly sponsored the Awards, bringing together the American literary community for the first time to honor the year’s best fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As the Boston Herald reported the following day, “literary history was indeed in the making.”
The National Book Awards quickly established a reputation for recognizing literary excellence. Within a decade the National Book Awards would acknowledge the work of writers such as Hannah Arendt, W.H. Auden, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Rachel Carson, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Adrienne Rich, J. D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, and William Carlos Williams—authors who have helped shape the foundation of American literature.
From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the National Book Awards expanded, adding new award categories for Science, Philosophy & Religion, History & Biography, Arts & Letters, Translation, Contemporary Thought, Autobiography, First Novel, Original Paperback, and Children’s Books.
By 1980, a total of 28 prizes in 16 categories were given annually through the renamed American Book Awards The category expansion eventually seemed to diffuse the impact of the Awards, and so in the late 1980s the National Book Awards name was reinstated, and the categories were limited to Fiction and Nonfiction, with the Poetry category being re-established in 1991. An Award for Young People’s Literature was created in 1996 and a fifth category, for Translated Literature, was created in 2018.
Also in the late 1980s, the National Book Foundation, a not-for-profit organization was created to oversee the National Book Awards and to pursue an expanded mission to increase the readership and appreciation of great writing in America.
Today, the National Book Foundation actively pursues a national vision, with educational and public programming across the county, and the National Book Awards as its core. In 2017, the New York Times counted the National Book Awards, together with the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, as “the world’s most prestigious literary prizes.”