Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. This prize is awarded in twenty-one categories of writing from fiction to explanatory journalism with a $10,000 prize award in each of twenty categories and a gold medal in the public service category. The award was established in 1917 in the will of publisher Joseph Pulitzer and is administered by Columbia University in New York City (information source: Wikipedia).
Reading down the list of Pulitzer awards for this year suggests to me that many of these represent not only examples of great writing but the convergence of great writing with the concerns of our time. Nowhere is that more evident than in the public service gold medal award which went to the relatively small Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina for its series on domestic violence titled “Till Death Do Us Part“. The investigation that led to this series began when reporters for the newspaper noted that South Carolina was number one in the nation for the rate of women dying from incidents of domestic violence. The series is simply a window into the much wider prevalence of domestic violence, chronicled by the statistics in this Huffington Post article.
Other journalism awards illustrate this same idea. The New York Times won the international reporting category for its series of stories on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I admit it, I accessed these stories along with many others last summer to understand the horror of this outbreak and the belated response of health organizations around the world to it. The Los Angeles Times reporter Diana Marcum won a feature writing prize for the impact of the drought on California’s Central Valley and writer Mary McNamara won a criticism prize for writing on television and culture. The St Louis Post-Dispatch won breaking news photography awards for its coverage of the Ferguson riots following the death of Michael Brown.
I think this was true of the book awards as well. I believe there is a growing sensitivity of the impact of war on children. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, won the prize for fiction for his compelling account of two children whose lives are brought together by the devastation of World War II (this is one of my “want to read” books). Doerr’s book was also a National Book Award finalist.
Likewise, the non-fiction prize, The Sixth Extinction argues that there have been five previous catastrophic extinctions that have led to mass extinctions. Elizabeth Kolbert argues that we are in the midst of the sixth such extinction, and the first attributable to the human impact on life on the planet.
The prize for biography went to David Kertzer, whose The Pope and Mussolini explored the complex relationship between the Vatican and “Il Duce”. One cannot help wonder if the fascination with Pope Francis, whose engagements both with political powers in South America and the curia in Rome have caught our attention.
A complete list of prize winners appears on the Pulitzer website. In some way each of the award winners explore the intersection of our highest human aspirations and the rawest realities of the human condition. Whether in heroic resistance to tyranny, courageous medical care in a dangerous epidemic, the capturing in images of the explosive anger over the disparity between our country’s democratic ideals and institutional racism, or the consequences of our technological footprint on the fabric of life, each explores the paradox of our magnificent and flawed nature. Nowhere is this more the case than in the expose of the violence that invades the intimacy of the closest of all human relationships. The window on the world these writers and reporters give us reminds us of the line of good and evil that runs through our lives, the choice between destructive forces and the “better angels of our nature” we face each day, and dare I say, our common need of redemption. Good writing has always done this and I’m glad for the Pulitzer Awards and other prizes that call attention to those who give us both windows on our world and windows into our souls.