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Colson Whitehead became the rare author to receive Pulitzers for consecutive books when his novel about a brutal Florida reform school during the Jim Crow era, The Nickel Boys, was awarded the fiction prize Monday. Three years ago, he won for his Civil War era novel The Underground Railroad.
Pulitzer judges praised The Nickel Boys as “a spare and devastating exploration of abuse” that is “ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.” Whitehead, 50, is known for his experimental narratives and immersion in American history and folklore. His previous works include John Henry Days and The Intuitionist.
In a statement issued through his publisher, Doubleday, Whitehead said the news of his winning Monday was “pretty nuts!”
“Obviously I’m very honored and I hope that it raises awareness of the real life model for the novel — The Dozier School for Boys — so that the victims and their stories are not forgotten,” he said.
William Faulkner and John Updike are among the previous fiction writers to win more than one Pulitzer, but not for books that immediately followed the other.
Several of the works honored in the arts Monday explored race in American culture, including the music winner, Anthony Davis’ opera The Central Park Five. It tells of the wrongful conviction of five black and Latino teenagers for the 1989 assault on a white female jogger in Central Park. Five adult singers depicted the group as boys and men in Davis’ opera.
The Pulitzer board called the opera “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”
Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, a musical about a man trying to write a musical, won for drama. Jackson, who wrote the music, story and lyrics, centers on an overweight, overwhelmed “ball of black confusion” trying to navigate multiple worlds — white, black and gay — as well as his family’s religion.
“No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings the anxiety-ridden lead character, Usher.
The Pulitzer board called it a “meditation on universal human fears and insecurities.” The play was seen off-Broadway in 2019 at Playwrights Horizons. Musicals rarely claim the Pulitzer, with only Next to Normal and Hamilton winning since 2010.
W. Caleb McDaniel won in history for Sweet Taste of Liberty, in which she chronicles how a former enslaved person, Henrietta Wood, successfully sued the Kentucky law enforcement officer who contrived to sell her back into bondage after she had obtained her freedom.
Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work, about the late Susan Sontag, won for biography. There were two winners in general nonfiction: Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America and Ann Boyer’s’ The Undying: Pain, vulnerability, mortality, medicine, art, time, dreams, data, exhaustion, cancer, and care.
In poetry, the winner was Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” a meditation on life during a time of mass shootings and police violence. Judges called it a “collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.”
The initial Pulitzer ceremony, which had been scheduled for April 20, was pushed to give Pulitzer Board members more time to evaluate the finalists because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
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