Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Prize Watch: History and nonfiction at the Pulitzers

The (American) Pulitzer Prize rolled out its annual slew of awards the other day, mostly for categories of journalism, but also in the arts and letters.

The History winner was Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Apparently, the jury moved that title from Biography, where it was nominated -- presumably preferring it to any of the History noms. Stiles, a history professor at UC Berkeley, had previously won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for his biography of business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. A review takes up what might have been my question about Custer -- is there anything to say about him? -- and answers vigorously yes. (He's still a major dick, though.)

The Biography or Autobiography winner, meanwhile, was Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. I happened to read it recently and so can testify that with zero prior interest in surfing, I could not put it down. Its history of how adolescent boys learned and performed masculinity in 1950s-60s California and Hawaii (Finnegan does not phrase it that way!) is astute.  And surfing literature turns out to be a real possibility.

Had I been the jury, I might have moved Finnegan over to General Nonfiction as being more than an autobiography. But there it might have lost to another memoir, Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, which in actuality lost out in General Nonfiction to Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick. Complicated.

Oh, and one more on the history front:  Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton won the Drama prize.
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