The Other Pulitzers: Arts and letters winners are a mirror of America in 2019

April 16, 2019
Category: Business & Work

For journalists popping champagne corks Monday or contemplating their next big investigative project, it was probably easy to ignore the seven Pulitzer Prizes awarded annually in the arts.

That’s too bad — collectively they reflect American contemporary culture. And they are every bit the career-making honor for the winners that the 14 journalism categories confer.

Joseph Pulitzer’s 1904 will mandated four awards in letters and drama: for an American novel, an original American play performed in New York, a book on the history of the United States and an American biography.

The will gave what is now the Pulitzer Prize Board latitude to add, modify or drop categories. Among the arts prizes, music, poetry and general nonfiction were later additions. The drama competition was broadened to include regional theater.

(Pulitzer proposed just four journalism categories, one of which did not materialize. Successive boards have ramped up the number of those prize categories to the current 14).

Winners are selected by the same system as journalism entries, with juries sending three recommendations, unranked, to the board. The honorees are typically well-reviewed but not especially well known outside their special field. (A drama prize to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” and last year’s music award to Kendrick Lamar are recent exceptions).

This year’s winners fit the profile:

NOVEL  — “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, in which the protagonists are trees rather than people.

DRAMA — “Fairview” by Jackie Sibblies Drury, an off-broadway production, one of several in recent seasons, that gets confrontational about racial prejudice.

HISTORY — “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight, a Yale professor’s take on the scope of Douglass’s influence (differing from several previous biographies and Douglass’s own autobiography).

BIOGRAPHY — “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke” by Jeffrey C. Stewart, about the founder of the Harlem Renaissance and his difficulties as a gay man long before current norms of acceptance.

POETRY — “Be With” by Forrest Gander, a group of elegies, particularly focused on the sudden death of the author’s lover.

GENERAL NONFICTION — “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America” by Eliza Griswold, a journalistic tale of Appalachian life disrupted by oil fracking. (Amity and Prosperity are the two rural Pennsylvania towns profiled).

MUSIC — “prism” by Ellen Reid, a two-woman opera, produced in Los Angeles, centered on the aftershocks of sexual assault.

As the above suggests, African American subjects and LGBTQ themes are heavily represented. That was true to an extent, too, in 2018 when “Less,” a comic novel about a gay writer’s midlife crisis, and a book on crime and punishment in black America were among the winners. Three of the seven 2019 honorees are women.

Prize selections have been controversial through the years. As an excellent short history by former curators Seymour Topping and Sig Gissler recounts, the board rejected Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as not sufficiently uplifting. Thirty years later the prize went to Tony Kushner’s epic of the AIDS epidemic, “Angels in America.”

Music has been a particular lightning rod. As recently as Sunday, the New York Times weighed in with the snarky print headline, “Welcome to the Pulitzer Top 40.” Besides questioning last year’s award to Lamar, the piece noted dissatisfaction among contemporary composers of symphonic music and opera with what works get honored.

The Board held its ground in 2019, coming back with a Special Citation to Aretha Franklin.  Jazz artists like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane have been similarly honored posthumously; Hank Williams and Bob Dylan were winners, too.

The 18-member board includes non-journalist academics and authors. One member, Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, is a poet and foundation president, but none currently is a musician. Which broaches the awkward question of how qualified board members, whose careers and and attention are elsewhere, are equipped to judge the esoteric world of serious music.

And while we are on the topic of arts categories: I wonder how Pulitzer boards have gone 100-plus years without adding that most American of art forms: movies, or, if you will, cinema. Joseph Pulitzer didn’t think of it in his original list in 1904 for good reason — the first feature-length film was not released until two years later.