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.