Monday, March 3, 2014

Welcome to The Pulitzer Century

Hello, and welcome to yet another blog on

NB: Regular posts will commence
around the start of April, 2014.

The Project

Learn about the medal on the Pulitzer site
This project is rather ambitious. I plan to write about every Pulitzer Prize-winning book or play from the inception of the awards in 1917 until the 100th anniversary in 2017.

There are about 965 individual works to be considered, and around 1100 days to do it in. Plus, I hope to do a quick sketch of each year in which the awards were made, to put them in context.

My Method (A Confession)

Do I really intend to read almost a book a day, plus write 100 separate historical essays?


In fact, to take the "essays" first, I will mainly abstract certain entries from Wikipedia's lists of yearly events (here's the one for 1917) that I think will give an adequate impression of what was happening.

Covers of Pulitzer winners at LibraryThing
Click picture for larger version
As for the books and plays, I will do that for which I have been scolding students for decades: I will write about books without reading them (and plays without seeing them).

Instead, usually I will read about the books and plays. In some cases (especially with the poetry) I may read portions, as available. I'll familiarize myself with the works' plots, themes, unique characteristics; get to know something about the authors' lives and intentions; and then share with you what I've learned.

In most cases I'll use Wikipedia. In some cases, the works themselves are available online (especially the earlier ones), or excerpts of them are on Amazon. The Pulitzer site has "citations" for the more recent works. And then there are the blogs (listed at right) reflecting the views of those who have gone before me.

I will, of course, have read some of these books, or seen movies of the plays, and will let you know when that's the case. And sometimes, a work may "hook" me enough to get me to read it, but probably not until after I write about it (perhaps years after). I'll come back here and say a few words about those books.

The Great Books of the Western World
So here we go. In addition to my Shakespeare Project (reading all of the Bard's plays, and viewing the BBC version) and my Decade of Great Books (a ten-year reading plan), I'm about to undertake a crash course in the literature and history of the 20th century. Join me!

What Do You Mean, "The Pulitzer Century"?

The 20th century has been called, rightly or wrongly, "The American Century." Certainly during that time, our literature and other cultural artifacts have made an outsized impression on other cultures.

20th-century collage borrowed from another site
Click picture for larger version

And so--as an American expat who has spent most of the years since 1997 in Asia--I will look at the Pulitzer Prizes for Letters* and Drama (and, peripherally, at other phenomena such as the Academy Awards, the Grammys, and American recipients of Nobel Prizes) as a means of understanding that era.
*The Pulitzer Prizes for Letters include: Fiction (since 1917); Drama (since 1917); Poetry (since 1922); History (since 1917); Biography or Autobiography (since 1917); and General Nonfiction (since 1962).
A young Joseph Pulitzer
The Pulitzer was established by immigrant journalist and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer in his will. There are currently about 30 categories in the realms of journalism (writing, including reporting and commentary; photography; and cartooning); and seven awards in "Letters, Drama, and Music."

(I have decided not to write about music, as the recipients are largely outside of my experience. Do you really know much about Caroline Shaw's Partita for 8 Voices; Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts by Kevin Puts; Zhou Long's Madame White Snake; Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto; or the Double Sextet by Steve Reich?* These are the winners in the past five years. The only work on the list I can say I really know is 1945's Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Shame on me.)
*Behlendorf, you are disqualified from answering this question.
While the journalism awards are interesting, there are so many that to explore them would be like reading hundreds of old newspapers.

Not that I have anything against those awards, or think the less of them.* Once, in Tokyo, I was fortunate to see an exhibition of all the prize-winning photographs to that point. Similar exhibitions have been mounted elsewhere, but it was especially stirring to be standing in front of these iconic images--standing, that is, in a foreign land.
*In fact, I'm proud of the fact that one of my talented Baquet cousins won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting.
Nevertheless, as more of a bookish guy than a newsie, I'm looking at the fiction, the historical commentary, the poetry and drama that my era has produced, and that has influenced it in turn. I think this is going to be exciting.

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