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.
"We're freaking out here," said poetry winner Emerson, who teaches at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. "It was a very big surprise." The author of three books of poetry, Emerson said "Late Wife" is much more personal than her other work.
The collection includes what she called "a series of epistles to my ex-husband," a section of poems in which she experiences being alone as an "emotional convalescence," and a series of letters, in sonnet form, to her new husband, whose first wife died of lung cancer.
The work is about "having a wonderful new relationship in the face of loss," she said.
Brooks is the second Pulitzer winner in her household. Her husband, Tony Horwitz, won a journalism Pulitzer in 1995 for a Wall Street Journal series on low-wage work in America.
Currently on fellowship at Harvard, she found some of the inspiration for "March" at home in Waterford, Va., a rural village where there were "bullet holes in the bricks of the local church where a Civil War skirmish had taken place," as she noted on her Web site, and where "a Union soldier's belt buckle was unearthed in our back yard."
"March" -- not to be confused with E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel "The March," which was a Pulitzer finalist -- takes its name from Brooks's main character. He is "a thirty-nine-year-old vegetarian preacher," as the New Yorker put it, "whom many readers will recognize as the largely absent father of Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women.' "
Yehudi Wyner's piano concerto "Chiavi in Mano" was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in February 2005. Richard Dyer, reviewing the premiere for the Boston Globe, called the work "full of surprises . . . from Baroque briskness through Prokofievian percussive motor rhythms to torch song, jazz, rock, and honky-tonk with washboard accompaniment, all viewed through the lens of a personal, flexible, and highly chromatic musical language."
The Pulitzer committee also honored the immortal Thelonious Monk posthumously for what it called "a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz."
In keeping with the year's historical theme, the committee also gave a special citation to Edmund S. Morgan for "a creative and deeply influential body of work as an American historian that spans the last half century."
Staff writer Tim Page contributed to this report.