Vanderbilt biography, Cold War arms race book among arts Pulitzers

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nonfiction books about 19th- and 20th-century history -- from a biography of voracious industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt to World War I-era bankers to the Cold War arms race -- won Pulitzer Prizes in the arts and letters categories on Monday.

Pulitzers also went to the writers of the Broadway hit "Next to Normal" for drama; first-time novelist Paul Harding for "Tinkers" for fiction; poet Rae Armantrout for a collection called "Versed"; and classical composer Jennifer Higdon for her Violin Concerto. Higdon was only the third woman to win the award in music since it was first awarded in 1943.

In addition, country-music icon Hank Williams was honored posthumously with a special citation noting his indelible mark on the genre. Some 57 years after Williams died at age 29, the Pulitzer committee declared him "a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life."

The prize for general nonfiction when to David E. Hoffman for "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy," which focused on the Soviet Union's response to the American arms buildup under President Ronald Reagan (the title refers to a post-apocalyptic Soviet doomsday plan). Hoffman, The Washington Post's former White House reporter and Moscow bureau chief, said the book grew out of a series he wrote for the newspaper in 1998 about the legacy of the Cold War in Russia. He worked on the book for six years while he served as the paper's foreign editor.

Hoffman learned that he had won the prize on Monday as he walked into The Post's newsroom for a ceremony honoring one of his former reporters, Anthony Shadid, who won his second Pulitzer for foreign reporting. (Shadid is now with the New York Times, and Hoffman is a Post contributing editor.) He called it "an odyssey of discovery of myself," because it entailed revisiting his old beats in Washington and Moscow.

Another Washington area author, Liaquat Ahamed, won in the history category for "Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World." Ahamed, a former World Bank economist and investment manager, wrote about four powerful finance ministers from the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany whose efforts to place the world's industrial economies back on the gold standard after World War I lead to economic disaster. Ahamed, 57, said he wrote the book -- his first -- after he started reading about financial panics in the wake of the Asian and Russian financial crises in the late 1990s.

As a result, "I stumbled across these four guys," he said on Monday. "I thought it would be a wonderful way to tell the story [of the Depression's roots] by looking over their shoulders."

The biography award went to historian T.J. Stiles for "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt," about the rise of the steamboat and railroad baron. Stiles also won the National Book Award for the volume.

"Next to Normal," the musical story of how a suburban family copes with a mother's chronic mental illness, had an unorthodox journey to the Pulitzer. After opening off-Broadway to decidedly mixed reviews, the show's creators, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, brought it to Arena Stage in the fall of 2008 for a revamping. The enthusiastic reception for the revised version helped persuade its producer, David Stone, and director, Michael Greif, to bring it to Broadway, where it continues a successful run. It won Tonys last June for best score, lead actress and orchestrations.

Higdon, the music winner, is having a great year: Along with Monday's Pulitzer, her Percussion Concerto won the 2010 Grammy for best contemporary classical composition. Higdon, 47, is one of the most-performed composers in the orchestral world: She writes music that's both smart and accessible, invigorating yet familiar enough to tease along the ears of the reluctant. It combines, according to Higdon's Pulitzer citation, "flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity."

The Violin Concerto was written for the star violinist Hilary Hahn, a former student of Higdon's at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where the composer, herself an alumna, has taught for 16 years.

Harding's debut novel, "Tinkers," is about an old New England clock repairman looking back on his life on his deathbed. A former drummer, Harding started the book a decade ago while his band was on hiatus. The Pulitzer recognition lifted the book from relative obscurity; "Tinkers" received few major reviews and was published by tiny Bellevue Literary Press, a nonprofit publisher that has operated out of an office at New York University's School of Medicine since 2005.

In winning a "special citation," Williams joined an illustrious list of fellow winners that includes Duke Ellington (1999), Thelonious Monk (2006), John Coltrane (2007) and Bob Dylan (2008).

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