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German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann in Tulsa, OK, in 1939.
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German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann in Tulsa, OK, in 1939.William Vandivert—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann in Tulsa, OK, in 1939.
1947 Nobel laureate Andre Gide, at work (left) and in a portrait by LIFE's Yale Joel.
French writer Albert Camus smokes a cigarette on the balcony outside his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard's office in Paris, 1955. Camus won the Nobel in 1957; in 1960, when he was 46 years old, he was killed in a car crash along with Gallimard, who was driving.
Ernest Hemingway in Cuba in 1952. He was awarded the Nobel in 1954. When LIFE magazine published Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, in its entirety, in its September 1, 1952, issue, five million copies of the magazine were sold . . . in two days.
Pearl Buck at her desk in 1942 (left), and in 1956 (right). She was awarded the Nobel for Literature in 1938.
Sinclair Lewis in New York in 1937. He won his Nobel for Literature in 1930.
George Bernard Shaw, 90 years old, stands in the yard of his home in the Hertfordshire village of Ayot St. Lawrence, England, in 1946.
The 1949 Nobel laureate William Faulkner, photographed in Hollywood in 1940.
The 1962 Nobel laureate John Steinbeck in New York City in 1937.
Jean-Paul Sartre at his home in Paris in 1946. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but famously declined to accept it.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell at his desk at UCLA in 1940 (left), and in England in 1951 (right). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.
Playwright Eugene O'Neill in New York in 1950.
German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann i
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William Vandivert—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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The Nobel Prize in Literature: Portraits of Legendary Laureates

Mar 05, 2012

More than 100 men and women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since the Swedish Academy began bestowing the prize in 1901. That the academy has missed some opportunities to honor deserving authors (Tolstoy, Joyce, Borges, Nabokov, Proust, Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene are but a few of the giants without Nobel laurels) is a failing that, to most readers, pales beside the excellence and striking variety—in style and subject matter, if not race and gender—among those who have won.

The Nobel, then, still carries real weight. Unlike most literary prizes—the Pulitzer, the Man Booker, the Goncourt, et al.—which each year honor discrete fiction and nonfiction titles, the Nobel celebrates and solemnizes a writer's life work.

Here, LIFE.com looks back at how LIFE magazine portrayed some Nobel winners through the years: photographs of writers who had already garnered the prestigious—in fact, the most prestigious—of all literary plums, and those who still had a few years to go before the Academy came calling.

NOTE: Only two honorees have ever declined the Nobel for literature, one voluntarily, the other under threat. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre sent his regrets, stating at-once graciously and forcefully, "A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form."

In 1958, the great Russian poet and author of Dr. Zhivago, Boris Paternak, accepted the Nobel, but was later forced by the Soviet authorities, to the enduring shame of the USSR, to decline the prize. In 1989 Pasternak's son, Evgenii, accepted the Nobel medal on his father's behalf at a ceremony in Stockholm.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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