Given by the Richards Free Library of Newport, New Hampshire, the Sarah Josepha Hale Award honors "a writer who, through his or her life work, maintains a connection to New England." It was named for Newport author Sarah Josepha Hale whose 19th century editorials in Godey’s Lady’s Magazine helped shape American women's opinions for four decades. In addition to her editorials, she also authored the children's poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb," was instrumental in raising enough money to complete the monument at Bunker Hill, and convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. Since 1956, a panel of twelve judges, including authors, educators, public figures, and publishers, have met to award the honor each year to a deserving author.
Originally, the award was conceived as a fundraiser of sorts. Poet and novelist Raymond Peckham Holden, who retired in Newport after serving as personnel director of the Book-of-the-Month Club, founded the Friends of the Richards Free Library to raise money for the institution. When bake sales and art festivals failed to generate enough funds, he hit upon the idea of bringing his old friend, Robert Frost, to speak. The public would definitely pay to hear Frost, and he figured that if he could convince Frost to come, other authors would follow suit. Knowing authors as he did, he knew money alone wouldn't lure them to a little New England mill town; he needed another hook to get their attention. A medal. A literary award. And so was born the Sarah Josepha Hale Award.
Because it is still a fundraising event, the award must be accepted in person. If the recipient cannot attend the ceremony, another winner is selected. To date, this has only occurred once. In 1963, President and Pulitzer prize winner John F. Kennedy was initially invited to accept it to mark the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's original proclamation of Thanksgiving, but his aides told the committee he was unable to attend do to a prior committment. Fellow Pulitzer winner John Hershey was invited in his place and gave his acceptance speech on the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
The award continues to grow in disctinction and becomes more desirable in literary circles. John Hershey, when asked why he travelled so far to speak in a small New England town, replied that he "wanted the medal." Sarah Josepha Hale is honored each year by the award that bears her name, and the company of recipients becomes ever more distinguished with each addition.
And the winners are...
Note: The process of selecting the winner and presenting the award took two years starting in 1978, so no separate award was given in 1979.
Email correspondence with the award administrator
"The Literary Scene in Newport, New Hampshire" by Evan Hill, Boston Globe, August 17, 1975