2019 Pulitzer Prizes Announced

The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes demonstrate a commitment to recognizing the pressing issues of our times.

Announcing the 2019 Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy yesterday demonstrated tremendous urgency by proclaiming of journalism that “our profession is mandated by the Constitution.” And of arts and letters that award recipients “include Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedybooks, music, and drama that inform, uplift, and at times anger us about some of the most pressing social, political, and cultural issues of the day.”

Thus, Richard Powers’s fiction winner, The Overstory (Norton), focuses on the environment, particularly trees and their symbiotic relationship to the world, even as it clarifies the relationships among nine unrelated characters to demonstrate human unity. Fiction finalist Rebecca Makkai (The Great Believers, Viking) explores the long-term consequences of AIDS, while Tommy Orange’s multi-award-winning There, There (Knopf) summates the experience of urban Native Americas.

The other Letters, Drama, and Music winners also demonstrate the drive toward social justice and cultural definition. David W. Blight’s history winner, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (S. & S.), plumbs the depth of Douglass’s writings and relationships; Jeffrey C. Stewart’s biography winner, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford Univ.), explores the aesthetic triumphs and personal struggles of the father of the Harlem Renaissance; and Eliza Griswold’s general nonfiction winner, Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America (Farrar), concerns an Appalachian family clinging to the middle class as their community is gutted by fracking.

Forrest Gander’s poetry winner, Be With (New Directions), his first book of poems since his Pulitzer finalist Core Samples from the World, deploys a version of a poem by the Spanish mystical poet St. John of the Cross as it explores geological and cultural history along the U.S.–Mexico border and the struggle of the poet’s mother with Alzheimer’s. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s drama winner, Fairview, homes in on race and the audience’s most foundational prejudices, while Ellen Reid’s music winner, prism, her first opera, addresses the consequences of sexual and emotional abuse. The work premiered at the Los Angeles Opera in November 2018.

Winners in Journalism’s 14 categories ranged from the staff of Baton Rouge, LA’s the Advocate for local reporting on the state’s discriminatory conviction system to the Wall Street Journal for national reporting on President Donald Trump’s secret payoffs to two women during his campaign. Unusually, the award for international reporting was shared by two news teams: Maggie Michael, Maad al-Zikry, and Nariman El-Mofty of the Associated Press and the staff of Reuters, notably Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, whose coverage of systematic expulsion and murder of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar landed them in prison.

Before revealing the awards, Canedy doubled up on the urgency of the moment by announcing a special citation and an award of $100,000 for future endeavors, given to the Capital Gazette, Annapolis, MD, in light of the staff’s determination to continue work after five coworkers were killed at their newsroom on June 28, 2018. Just as important, she praised a submission that did not win: the obituaries of 17 coaches and classmates from the Eagle Eye student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, FL, written after the terrible shooting at their school in February 2018.

“These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness—even in the most wrenching of circumstances—in service to a nation whose very existence depends on a free and dedicated press,” Canedy noted. Thus she highlighted major themes of her administration: the need to encourage young journalists, acknowledging the rich new avenues open to them in the media even as fake news and denunciation of their chosen profession flourish, and to recognize freedom of expression as the foundation of our democracy.

 

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Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Book Review; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, to which she has just been reelected.

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