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This Year’s Nobel Prize in Literature and Other Cool Facts

Kudos to American Poet, Louise Glück

Nobel Prize Coin

Who Was Alfred Nobel?

We know they’re a big deal. We hear about the Nobel Prizes every year. But do we really know much about them or the man who created them?

The Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1901, an eternal gift from Alfred Nobel. Alfred was an amazing guy, an inventor, chemist, writer, engineer, and businessman.

Alfred Nobel was born in Sweden in 1833. His father, Immanuel Nobel, an engineer and inventor building bridges and experimenting with different techniques for smashing rocks. When Immanuel’s business was forced into bankruptcy, the family moved to Finland, where Alfred’s socialite mother, Andriette, opened a grocery store to keep the family afloat while Immanuel started a mechanical business in St. Petersburg, Russia selling equipment to the Russian Army. Immanuel also devised naval mines for the Tsar so that enemy ships could not get close to the city. Alfred’s father also worked on the design of steam engines and armaments.

It’s not hard to b where Alfred got his innovative urges. Immanuel moved his family to St. Petersburg when Alfred was nine, where he and his brothers received the best in private tutoring. By the time he was seventeen, Alfred could speak five languages and was a lover of poetry. Then, he was sent abroad to learn chemical engineering where he got interested in nitroglycerin and how explosives could be used in construction work.

Alfred Nobel’s Fortune

Alfred came back to Sweden and experimented with nitroglycerin resulting in several explosions, including one that killed his brother, Emil. By 1864, he had started to mass-produce nitroglycerine. Then, he figured out that with the use of additives, nitroglycerine could be shaped into rods called dynamite. Alfred went on to invent the blasting cap so that the dynamite could be detonated.

Dynamite was patented in 1867 and was the basis for Alfred Nobel’s rise to fortune. He was an astute businessman and owned and operated 90 factories and laboratories in 20 countries around the world, living in Paris whenever he could. He was a scientist and chemist who also worked with synthetic rubber, leather, and silk. He had patents on 355 innovations by the time he died in 1896, a wealthy man.

The Nobel Prizes

Alfred Nobel signed his last will in Paris on November 27, 1895. He specified that the bulk of his fortune should be divided into five parts and to be used for prizes in the following areas to

“those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”
  • Physics

  • Chemistry

  • Physiology or medicine

  • Literature

  • Peace

Congratulations, Louise Glück!

Louise Glück is the 13th American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Infographic: 13 American Nobel Prize in Literature Winners

Louise Glück is an American poet, born in New York in 1943. I’m sad to say that my dabbling with poetry instead of diving headlong into it had not exposed me to her work. But I will certainly get acquainted with her now.

The Foundation awarded Glück the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature

“for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal..”

Glück is no stranger to awards. As The Guardian notes,

In 1993, The Wild Iris won a Pulitzer prize. In 1999, she received a Lannan award; in 2001, the Bollingen prize; in 2003, she became US poet laureate. And this year, as well as the Nobel, she’s received the Tranströmer prize, awarded in memory of the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer — the last poet to receive the Nobel prize, back in 2011.

The New York Times says this of Glück:

“…it’s part of her greatness that her poems are relatively easy of access while impossible to utterly get to the bottom of. They have echoing meanings; you can tangle with them for a very long time.”


“It’s Glück’s abundant intellect, and deep feeling, that keeps pulling you back to her poems.”

I can’t wait to dive in.

Other Cool Facts

  • The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 117 times to 113 different laureates since 1901.

  • The Prize was shared four times, in 1904, 1917, 1966, and 1974, but none of these were American writers.

  • There were seven years no prize was awarded: 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1943.

  • The youngest Nobel Laureate in Literature was Rudyard Kipling who was 41.

  • The oldest Nobel Laureate in Literature was Doris Lessing who was 88. She could not attend the ceremony because of a back problem, but her agent delivered her Nobel Lecture.

  • No one has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature more than once.

  • 16 women have won the prize.

  • Two writers have declined the award, Boris Pasternak in 1958 who was forced to return it by his mother country, Russia, and Jean-Paul Satre in 1964 who declined all official recognition.

  • After 1974, no one can be awarded the prize posthumously unless death occurs after the announcement.

  • Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature — not Peace — in 1953.

  • “Each Nobel diploma is a unique work of art, created by foremost Swedish and Norwegian artists and calligraphers.”

Alfred’s Vision

Alfred’s family didn’t like that he left his wealth to fund the future prizes of strangers even though they were conferring a great benefit to humankind. In 1896, he left SEK 31 million, (about 265 million dollars in today’s value), to be invested in “safe securities.” Today, the winner of the Nobel receives a little over a million dollars per prize.

If by some miracle, I ever earn a pot of money, I’m going to set up an award for literary achievement in authors who publish their first book after the age of sixty. While the prize may not be a million dollars, it might be some token of appreciation for persistence and talent — and for showing that through literature, we can change the world.


Read more about the literary world in "Need to Read."

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