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Archive for Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Pulitzers honor arts accomplishments

April 10, 2002

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— Historian David McCullough's second biography of a U.S. president was just as much a hit with the Pulitzer Prize Board as his first, while "Topdog/Underdog" helped Suzan-Lori Parks become the first black woman to win the Pulitzer's drama award.

McCullough, 68, earned a second Pulitzer for "John Adams," nine years after he won the biography prize for "Truman." This time he beat former President Jimmy Carter, cited for his memoir "An Hour Before Daylight."

McCullough has twice written about presidents who enjoyed long, happy marriages, and the author himself noted that the news Monday of the new Pulitzer came on the birthday of his wife of 47 years, Rosalee.

"It couldn't have happened on a more appropriate day, given that she's been so much involved all along," McCullough said from his home in West Tisbury, Mass.

The author confessed to one embarrassing error  misquoting Thomas Jefferson. But the book still was widely credited with reviving interest in Adams, a one-term president whom Jefferson defeated for re-election.

"John Adams" has about 1.5 million copies in print, a remarkable total for a 700-page book about an 18th century politician. Among the readers: President Bush.

Drama and music

Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," a bruising yet often comic two-character play about sibling rivalry and dreams denied, made its official Broadway debut on Sunday night to rave reviews.

"It's a real 'us' moment right now. And not just 'us' as in African-American women playwrights, but 'us' meaning everybody who was and is involved in 'Topdog/Underdog,"' said Parks, 38. She was interviewed from the offices of the off-Broadway, nonprofit Public Theater, where "Topdog/Underdog" had its world premiere last July.

The prize for music went to 88-year-old Henry Brant, for "Ice Field." The Canadian-born Brant is a pioneer of spatial music, in which the instruments are dispersed around the concert hall. He has written more than 100 works widely performed in the United States and Europe.

"I've been composing for over 70 years, and in that time, if you keep this up, you see many different things," he said. "I wasn't too astonished because one gets to expect surprises."

Pulitzer officials did not immediately know whether Brant was the oldest winner ever.

Fiction and poetry

Richard Russo won the fiction prize for "Empire Falls," another compassionate story of hard luck in a small town from the acclaimed author of "Nobody's Fool" and "Mohawk." Russo himself is a working man's son from the small town of Gloversville, N.Y.

"I talked to a cousin today from where I grew up, and he is beside himself with glee that this happened to me, to someone from this family, from this town," said Russo, 52, now a resident of Maine.

Among the fiction finalists was a far more talked-about novel, "The Corrections," by Jonathan Franzen, the author Oprah Winfrey disinvited from her show after he made disparaging remarks about her book club.

Also winning Monday was Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club," a surprise best seller about four 19th century philosophers, and Diane McWhorter's "Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution."

"Oh my God," McWhorter said upon receiving word of the general non-fiction prize. "I'm fainting now, lying on my bed. I've got my hands over my eyes."

Menand, 50, is a staff writer for The New Yorker who worked more than a decade on an unlikely personal passion  the philosophy of "pragmatism," which emphasizes experience over idle contemplation. "The Metaphysical Club" narrates the lives of four leading pragmatists: William James, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Asked how he would celebrate his history prize, Menand said he didn't know, but "it won't be pragmatic at all."

The poetry winner was Carl Dennis for "Practical Gods," which uses a conversational tone to explore religion from various perspectives.

His reaction to Monday's good news was more perplexed than conservational.

"Is this a joke?" the 62-year-old Dennis asked during a phone interview with The Associated Press from his Buffalo home.

"I'll have to do a reality check," he said upon learning it was not.

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