Dana Reed Prize Seeks To Select Outstanding Undergraduate Writing

For the past fourteen years an informal committee of about a dozen alumni have devoted themselves to the not altogther comfortable task of selecting an "outstanding contribution to Harvard's undergraduate publications." "Our intention," said one of the group recently, "is to pick some piece each year that is most worthy of recognition--we try to avoid talking about 'best pieces.' What we've established in effect is a collegiate Pulitzer Prize." Most of the committee's members were on the board of the 1943 Harvard Album--then the official title of the Harvard Yearbook. Since 1948, they have been legally constituted as the Dana Reed Prize Committee.

'Something Useful"

Under the vigorous direction of Dana Reed '43, the 1943 Album had ammassed a profit of some $1,500--a profit which the board members of later hoped to split up among themselves. After graduating from Harvard, the album staff joined the war effort. Reed became a Liberator bomber pilot; on Armistice Day, 1944, his plane was lost in bad weather somewhere over northern Italy. When the Album staff reassembled after the war, the profit motive had lost its allure. Eric Larabee, now editor of Horizon magazine remarked recently, "We suddenly had the impulse that does come to people occasionally to do something useful with our money. The Album wasn't supposed to make a profit in '43, anyway."

The Album's money was first offered Harvard, but the University declined to administer a prize fund. "Actually, Harvard's decision wasn't assnobbish as it might seem," recalls Myron S. Kaufmann, author of the novel Remember Me to God. "The Management of the investment of such a small fund is quite unwieldy and quite a nuisance. Thinking it over, we decided to keep the money in our own hands." The group also decided to abondon its original intention of investing the money. At the suggestion of Frederick Lewis Allen, father of one of the Album staffers and at that time still editor of Harper's, the committee decided to award a sum of $100 annually as long as the money lasted.

Unexpectedly, the $1500 total was within the next year doubled by gifts from Reed's family, and from various of his classmates. The committee suddenly had to face the fact of his own permanence. Album members responded unhesitatingly; officially constituting themselves as the Dana Reed Prize Committee, they even began to assess themselves small annual dues.


As the Dana Reed Prize Committee, the ex-Albumers had also to evolve some scheme for the formal administration of their award. Characteristically, they agreed to a plan whose basic element was relaxed informality. "We wanted to increase the prestige value of the award," said Kaufmann. "The best idea we could think of was to invite three different guest judges each year. Asking each judge to serve only once--and on a purely voluntary basis, of course--we could impose on people of higher rank, so to speak."

The first year's judges were men of commendably high rank. In addition to Frederick Lewis Allen the committee managed to interest Allen's longtime competitor, Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and, as a third man, Louis M. Lyons, Curator of the Nieman Foundation. Harvard publications were each asked to submit some dozen pieces to the Prize Committee, which in its turn, submitted to the three judges about one-third of this total. First winner of the award, was Clement B. Wood, Jr. '49, for a short story in the Lampoon, A Very Young Rabbit.

Routine Becomes Congenial

After the tension of their first year, the Very Young Prize Committee began to find the routine of award presentation somewhat more congenial. For one thing, judges were more readily available. "Once we got going, it was fairly easy," reflects Kaufmann. "Our only obstacle was that the potential judges didn't know who we were at first. But once we were able to tell them that Allen or Weeks had done it, we could approach anyone."

The judges own procedure was as informal as that of the committee, according to Kaufmann. "When the award is finally made in May" it represents a meeting of the minds of all three judges. But it does happen that they sometimes do all their meeting by mail. We prefer it if they get together." Being a aDna Reed Prize judge is, it seems, a far from unnerving experience. The novelist Jean Stafford, a judge in 1954--the year that produced the award's most notable recipient, John Updike '55--declared recently that "I had more pleasure reading for this than almost anything; judging the young you have no reputation to worry about. The name Updike meant nothing to me, of course. But from the first he made our final choice a pretty obvious one. His poems showed him a very original man of creative parts--and he kept showing up in so many different guises, now a satirical poet, now a lyricist."

"Beating the System"

A less lyrical recipient was Donald Carswell '50, whose often reprinted CRIMSON article Beating the System gained him the 1951 award. Beating the System is most frequently seen as a stormy petrol before the onset of exam period, and begins memorably, "This article is designed to explain how to achieve an answer to the examination problem by the use of the vague generality, the artful equivocation, and the overpowering assumption."

Examinations of other collegiate systems, the judges showed in 1958, can also be prize-worthy. John E. McNees '60 of the Crimson received the award for his The Quest at Princeton for the Cocktail Soul, an article which included a lengthy description of the Princeton "undesirables." "Besides being ignorant of his own inadequacies and ineptitudes... he wears thick glasses, has a large nose, and is flagrantly Jewish.... Most of the officers on Prospect Street would agree that this precisely describes the sort of man who at all costs must be kept out. It is also a fairly accurate portrait of Einstein."

Every award presenting group has its problems, and even the chequered shade of the halls of the Dana Reed Prize Committee is occasionally darkened by worry. In Myron Kaufmann's words, "Our biggest headache now is deciding what publications at Harvard we can accept entries from. There have been a lot of new ones recently, and we'd like to have them included--but we really can never be sure if they're going to be reasonably permanent publications." The committee's own reasonable permanency is, of course, another problem that the Album must eventually face. There is some talk of incorporation; but no one seems to have given much thought yet to the need to perpetuate in some way the administration of the prize itself. The former Album staffers accept age with as much equanimity as they accept the yearly onslaught of entries. "My guess," says Eric Larrabee "is that we'll just keep on going for quite some time to come."