Arts Pulitzers Make History the Big Winner

Historical themes dominated the Pulitzers for letters, including
Historical themes dominated the Pulitzers for letters, including "Imperial Reckoning" by Caroline Elkins, about a British gulag in Kenya; Geraldine Brooks's Civil War novel, "March"; and "American Prometheus," a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Yehudi Wyner, right, won the prize for music for his "Piano Concerto: 'Chiavi in Mano.' " (By Michael Lovett -- Pulitzer Prize Committee Via Associated Press)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Washington writers Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" on a day when historical topics dominated the Pulitzer awards for letters.

Geraldine Brooks won the fiction prize for her historical novel "March," which is set during the Civil War. Harvard historian Caroline Elkins won the general nonfiction award for "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya." University of Texas historian David M. Oshinsky's "Polio: An American Story" won in the category specifically designated for history.

The poetry award went to a work of personal history, Claudia Emerson's "Late Wife."

The Pulitzer Prize in music went to "Piano Concerto: 'Chiavi in Mano' " by Yehudi Wyner. No award was made this year in the drama category.

Sherwin has been working on the Oppenheimer biography for a quarter of a century. "It doesn't seem so long right now -- only 25 years!," Sherwin said yesterday from Bird's house on Biltmore Street NW, where the collaborators were celebrating.

"I'm grateful Marty convinced me to come aboard," said Bird, who joined the project in 2000 and got so caught up he found himself dreaming of Oppenheimer at night. "Writers always talk about how hard it is to write, but this was such a fun book."

As director of the Manhattan Project during World War II, Oppenheimer oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, and his life "is just amazingly relevant today," Bird said. He went on to mention Oppenheimer's warnings about nuclear proliferation, "the news about Iran," and government wiretapping of Oppenheimer's telephones.

Elkins, reached at her Harvard office, pronounced herself "overwhelmed" by the award for her Kenya book. "Imperial Reckoning" began as research for her senior thesis, she said, when she came across some records from detention camps the British set up in Kenya -- then still a British colony -- during the post-World War II uprising that became known as the Mau Mau rebellion.

British officials exaggerated the threat, Elkins said, and the name "Mau Mau" came to connote "the most bestial, savage thing that ever happened." In fact, only 32 white settlers were killed in the rebellion. According to official records, 11,000 Kenyans died in the detention camps, but Elkins's research showed that the true number was likely far higher.

Elkins interviewed hundreds of survivors of the camps. "The British tried to sweep this under the rug," she said, adding that the Pulitzer triumph "is not about me -- it's about these men and women who had their histories taken from them."

Oshinsky said by phone from Austin that his research on polio brought back memories from his childhood. "Polio was a very visual disease," he explained, "and it was incredibly frightening to us growing up."

A historian who has also written on the Cold War crusade against domestic communism, Oshinsky called the drive for a polio vaccine "a far better crusade." It revolutionized philanthropy, he said, because it was funded not by a few rich people, but by "millions of common people giving dimes and quarters" to the March of Dimes.

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