Junot Díaz Wins Fiction Pulitzer; Tracy Letts Gets Prize for Drama

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Junot Díaz has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," an ambitious, unconventional novel about a nerdy Dominican immigrant and his family that took him 11 years to complete.

"It's extraordinary how many people read a book that's new and weird and befriend it," a stunned Díaz said shortly after receiving the news.

John Matteson won the biography prize for "Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father." Daniel Walker Howe won the history Pulitzer for "What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848." Saul Friedlander won in general nonfiction for "The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945."

Playwright Tracy Letts won the drama Pulitzer for "August: Osage County." The music prize went to David Lang for "The Little Match Girl Passion."

The Pulitzer Board also gave a special citation to living legend Bob Dylan, the first rock musician to be so honored.

Two poets shared a Pulitzer: Robert Hass for "Time and Materials" and Philip Schultz for "Failure."

Díaz's only other book, a story collection called "Drown," created a stir when it was published in 1996. "So, Junot Diaz, How Does It Feel to Be a Literary Sensation" read one newspaper headline that captured the expectations immediately placed on the young writer, whose identity had shifted from immigrant outsider to successful American overnight.

Disoriented by this, he struggled to follow up, which helps explain his joy at the reception of the long-awaited "Oscar Wao" -- which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award this year.

Díaz, now 39, was reached by cellphone just outside his mother's house in Ridgefield Park, N.J. "I'm about to walk in the door and tell her," he said. He was particularly eager to thank those who had encouraged him through hard times.

"I'm just this Dominican kid from New Jersey," Díaz said. "If anybody deserves this, it's all those people who dragged my giving-up, depressed [expletive] over the finish line" -- among them his fiance, Elizabeth de León, and his agent, Nicole Aragi, "who spent 11 years telling me, 'You can do this.' "

The real importance of his prize, he said, lies in its potential effect on others: "For any young person who's attempting to make art against all the odds, I hope this can be inspiration and motivation."

Matteson, who teaches literature and legal writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, talked about a change of course four years ago that helped him win the biography prize.

"I initially set out to write a book about 19th-century utopian communities," he explained. But the first such community he researched was Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands, and he realized that he was far more interested in "the remarkable father and daughter" at the center of that story.

Matteson's own daughter, Rebecca, was then close to the age Alcott's daughter Louisa was at the time of Fruitlands' founding, and he thought writing about the pair might "give me insights into parenthood."

Among the things he learned: Bronson Alcott, a man much misunderstood in his time, nonetheless held true to his conviction that life was best led "from a standpoint of intellectual complexity and moral simplicity." Louisa May Alcott, meanwhile -- hot-tempered where her father was placid -- was misunderstood by him. In the end, her writing (most famously of "Little Women") and her courageous service as a nurse during the Civil War redeemed her in his eyes, and they became close.

"I am sending my only son off to war," Bronson said of his daughter. This may sound sexist today, Matteson said, but Louisa's father meant it as a compliment.

Howe, an emeritus professor at UCLA and Oxford, said his prizewinning book on early 19th-century American history was a departure for him in more than one way.

Like most academics, he said, he had previously written only for specialists, but "this time I wanted to write for the world" (by which he meant the literate general reader). He also wanted to include both top-down "traditional history" -- political, military, diplomatic -- and the newer kind of social, cultural and economic history that looks at the past from the bottom up.

Few historians do both, Howe said, "but I think history is made both ways."

Former U.S. poet laureate Hass, who lives in Northern California, was traveling and could not be reached, his publisher said. "Time and Materials" also won the National Book Award last fall, and Washington Post readers may be familiar with Hass as the author of the Poet's Choice column in Book World for many years.

Playwright Letts, 42, was once dubbed "the bard of white-trash America" by the Los Angeles Times. "August: Osage County" is a donnybrook of dysfunction set in rural Oklahoma.

The play has been received as a feast for actors -- including Letts's father, Dennis, who died this year at 73 after originating the role of the play's patriarch. In "August," the father's disappearance triggers a family reunion that brings out the worst in nearly all its 13 characters, save an American Indian woman hired to cook and clean.

This is the second time that Letts, an actor and ensemble member with Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has caught the Pulitzer committee's fancy. His "Man From Nebraska" was a finalist in 2004. The acclaimed production of "August" -- which demands the largest cast of any Pulitzer winner since "The Kentucky Cycle" in 1992 -- transferred almost wholly intact from Steppenwolf to Broadway last year, where it continues.

The 2008 music Pulitzers are a departure from the prize's traditional profile.

Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion" is a spare and lyrical choral work that blends the texts of Hans Christian Andersen and the format of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in a chain of four interwoven voices tinged with frosty percussion. It is a major accolade from the musical establishment for a composer whom it has tended to regard as a bad-boy maverick.

Lang, 51, is one of the three founders of Bang on a Can, the New York-based composers' collective known for its eclectic, rock-informed approach. In recent years, he has emerged as the most melodious voice in the group. "Little Match Girl Passion" is soft-edged and startlingly open in its pathos.

"I began my career as what my wife refers to as 'the formerly ironic David Lang,' " the composer said yesterday from a recording studio where he was working on his latest project, a film called "Untitled," to be released in the fall. "I wrote music that was essentially serious but had this comedic overlay. For the last few years, I've thought maybe I can get away without the jokes and say something meaningful, rather than try to sneak in something meaningful.

"One of the things that's been forgotten in music for a long time is the ability to be nakedly emotional."

"Little Match Girl Passion" can be heard in its entirety on Carnegie Hall's Web site.

The Pulitzer board cited Dylan "for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."

The iconic singer and songwriter revolutionized pop music in the 1960s with his rambling narratives and poetic confessionals. His citation represents another significant step in the prize's slow march beyond the realm of concert music. Jazz greats Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington have been among those honored previously.

Staff writers J. Freedom du Lac, Anne Midgette and special correspondent Nelson Pressley contributed to this report.

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