The late Manning Marable won the Pulitzer Prize for history Monday, honored for a Malcolm X book he worked on for decades but did not live to see published. For the first time in 35 years, no fiction prize was given.
Pulitzer judges almost awarded two posthumous prizes. David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” a novel assembled from notes he left behind at the time of his suicide in 2008, was among the finalists for fiction. Also cited were Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia” and Denis Johnson’s novella “Train Dreams.”
“It’s wonderful that the Pulitzer nominating committee recommended ‘The Pale King’ to the judges,” the book’s editor, Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown and Company, wrote in an email. “Anything that brings readers to David’s brilliant novels, especially his great novel ‘Infinite Jest,’ is a good thing!”
“The main reason (for the fiction decision) is that no one of the three entries received a majority, and thus after lengthy consideration, no prize was awarded,” said Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. “There were multiple factors involved in these decisions, and we don’t discuss in detail why a prize is given or not given.”
News about the fiction category was greeted with surprise.
“No fiction prize!” Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer winner in 1992 for “A Thousand Acres,” wrote on her Facebook page. “Not even to (Geraldine Brooks’) ‘Caleb’s Crossing!’ I did love that one.”
In an email to The Associated Press, Smiley added: “I can’t believe there wasn’t a worthy one. It’s a shame. But sometimes a selection committee really cannot agree, and giving no award is the outcome. Too bad.”
Fiction judges have withheld the Pulitzer 10 times before, according to Gissler, most recently in 1977. Among eligible books that have been bypassed: Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” James Dickey’s “Deliverance” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.”
Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play “Water by the Spoonful,” which centers on an Iraq war veteran’s search for meaning, won the Pulitzer for drama. Hudes previously wrote the book for the Broadway show “In the Heights,” which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008. Her play “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2007.
Marable, a longtime professor at Columbia University, died last year at age 60 just as “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” was being released. Years in the making, the book was widely praised, although some of Malcolm X’s children objected to the troubled portrait Marable offered of the activist’s marriage to Betty Shabazz.
“It is so rewarding to see Manning’s work honored as a landmark achievement in the documentation of 20th century American history,” Wendy Wolf, associate publisher at Viking, said in a statement.
Another long-term project, John Lewis Gaddis’ “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” won the Pulitzer for biography. Gaddis is a Yale University professor and leading Cold War scholar who began work on the Kennan book in the early 1980s. The project was delayed by Kennan’s longevity. Kennan, a founding Cold War strategist and a Pulitzer winner, was in his 70s at the time he authorized the book. He asked only that Gaddis wait until after his death.
Kennan lived to 101.
“He was a prize-winning author himself, so he would have been pleased,” said Gaddis, whose biography also won the National Book Critics Circle award.
“Life on Mars,” by Tracy K. Smith, won the poetry prize. The general nonfiction prize was given to “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” Stephen Greenblatt’s telling of the 15th century rediscovery of a masterpiece from ancient Rome, the poet Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”). Lucretius was an Epicurean who rejected religion, believed that the world consisted of tiny particles and considered the fear of death unnecessary.
“This poem changed my life. But it also turned out to change all of our lives even though there’s no reason you or anyone else should have heard of it,” said Greenblatt, a Renaissance specialist who last fall won the National Book Award.
Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts” was honored for music. Puts’ debut opera, it was commissioned and premiered by the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis on November 12, 2011.
“When I was composing it, I felt like it was in some ways easier than anything I’ve ever written,” Puts said. “It just felt natural for me, my first opera. I just thought as soon as I started: If nothing else, I wanted this to go well enough so I could write another opera.”