At a time when the world hopes we're not repeating the past, the Pulitzer Prizes for literature took a strong stand for the importance of remembering it. Each of these winning books looks back beyond our current challenges, sometimes at greatness, sometimes at horror, and sometimes at the preciousness of daily life.
For three of the authors, Monday's awards concluded a remarkable year of publicity and recognition. Samantha Power had already won the National Book Critics Circle award for "A Problem from Hell," her first book, which is a monumental study of political inaction in the face of genocide. Jeffrey Eugenides was on the NBCC's shortlist with his improbable novel woven through 20th-century history. And Robert Caro's study of Lyndon Johnson has now won every prize except first place on "American Idol."
With Volume I of his trilogy on the liberation of Europe during World War II, Rick Atkinson could be starting the kind of occupation of the history category that Caro has staked out in the biography category. "An Army at Dawn" earned Atkinson his third Pulitzer (The first came in 1982 at the Kansas City Times, the second in 1999 at The Washington Post.) He's currently embedded with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq.
"Moy Sand and Gravel" is the ninth book of poetry from Paul Muldoon, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, who looks back at his childhood with unsentimental delight. British critics have been quicker to recognize the genius of this Irish-born writer, who moved to America in 1987 and became eligible for the Pulitzer by taking US citizenship.
- Ron Charles
Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex" - the story of a hermaphrodite and two generations that came before her - soars over boundaries of gender, chronology, and identity in a voice that makes genetics spellbinding, and even tries to make sibling incest sound romantic. As the narrative unfolds against war-torn Smyrna, immigration to America, and the Detroit race riots, turmoil and transformation unfurl, too, in the protagonist's private life. Cal Stephanides - born Calliope, an apparent girl - begins her tale with tantalizing contradictions: "An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into a myth; I've left my body in order to occupy others - and all this happened before I turned sixteen." From there, Eugenides roars through time with a sweep that feels both cinematic and mythic: As the family lore unwinds, time becomes malleable, and Calliope accelerates and reverses history to dizzying, dazzling effect. "And so now, having been born," she says, "I'm going to rewind the film, so that my pink blanket flies off, my crib scoots across the floor as my umbilical cord reattaches." Eugenides wrangles with a destiny that mutates and recombines like restless chromosomes, in a novel of extraordinary flexibility, scope, and emotional depth. A National Book Critics Circle nominee. (529 pp.) By Christina McCarroll
AN ARMY AT DAWN, by Rick Atkinson, Henry Holt & Co., $30
The quick rout in Iraq seems downright minor next to the scale and ferocity of World War II. During nearly six years of fighting in Europe and Asia, someone died on battlefields around the world every 3 seconds - or about 27,600 a day. Almost a year after Pearl Harbor, American soldiers joined the fight on the ground against Nazi Germany in North Africa. So begins Rick Atkinson's engrossing "liberation trilogy." The Americans viewed North Africa as a distraction from the real target: a quick drive through Continental Europe on to Berlin. But the British Army, which fled the continent from Dunkirk in 1940 on any boat that could float, was more skittish about such a direct assault. As it turned out, the battle through North Africa would take almost a year from when a relatively unknown Army general named Patton landed on the Moroccan coast in November 1942, in what was then the largest amphibious assault of all time. Cooperation with Britain was often strained, and it took time for the Americans to learn how to fight effectively, but the campaign eventually elevated the United States to superpower status. Atkinson, a Washington Post reporter currently embedded with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, shows off a journalist's eye for compelling narrative and a historian's eye for detail. The result here will make any history buff hope Atkinson gets back soon to continue work on the next installment. (704 pp.) By Seth Stern
Legendary biographer Robert Caro has spent 25 years of his life chronicling Lyndon Johnson's - and he hasn't even gotten to the vice presidency, presidency, and post-presidency yet. This third volume in Caro's award- winning series recounts more of Johnson's ruthlessness, which dominated the second volume. In every sphere of his life, Johnson gathered power humbly; once he had it, he exercised it brutally. But, somehow, as an authoritarian, Johnson made democracy work for the American citizenry. This volume also marks a return to what Caro terms the "bright thread" of Johnson's life: the public-policy changes he helped bring about during his two terms in the US Senate, especially the civil rights improvements. Caro also calls attention to Johnson's genius as a political organizer. Nobody, he argues, has ever wielded legislative power more skillfully - and his history of the Senate shows why. Before Johnson arrived, Caro says, the Senate was a farce, whose deliberations, far from democratic, were governed by seniority. Though Caro's previous two volumes are superb, a newcomer won't be lost by jumping into this painstakingly researched, beautifully written installment. Winner of the National Book Award in nonfiction and a National Book Critics Circle nominee. (1,167 pp.) (Reviewed May 2, 2002) By Steve Weinberg
Some poetry ought to be read aloud; verse, however, begs to be sung. This is certainly the case with the work of Irish-born poet Paul Muldoon. There's an alliterative music contained in each line of this book, born along by Muldoon's clever use of rhyme. "Feckless as he was feckless, as likely as her to be in a foofaraw," goes one line. It doesn't matter that a reader hasn't a clue what such words mean. Their sound alone evokes a certain meaning, which the poem's cadence carries forward. Unlike the poetry of his nearest contemporaries, Derek Mahon and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, Muldoon's has a contemporary whimsy to it. Like these poets, though, Muldoon is a master of the pastoral. Many poems here unfold in Muldoon's native Northern Ireland. By turns humorous and dour, "Moy Sand and Gravel" takes readers on a tour of this lush countryside, pausing in towns pocked by history: Derryfubble, Dunnamanagh and Ballynascreen, Seskinore, Baleek and Bellanaleck. Thanks to mouthfuls like these, it may take some readers a few turns through "Moy Sand and Gravel" to get their tongues around its particular rhythms. That's not such a bad thing. Cheeky, fanciful, full of soul, and sprung by twinkle-eyed winks at readers' intelligence, these poems will stand the test of many encores. (120 pp.) By John Freeman
After Milosevic murdered the Muslims; Hutu Power hacked up the Tutsis; Hussein gassed the Kurds; Pol Pot butchered the Cambodians; Hitler slaughtered the Jews; and Talaat massacred the Armenians, Powers writes, Americans shook their heads and wondered how their country could have failed to intervene to stop such crimes. The devastating conclusion of her masterful book is: America didn't fail; it meant to look the other way. During each genocide (even before international law established that name), the US had sufficient evidence to understand that a people and its culture were being systematically destroyed. In almost every case, a US representative on the ground tried - and was personally devastated by his failure - to draw governmental attention to the impending slaughter. In every instance, the US could have chosen to intervene, diplomatically or militarily, in time to save millions. And in every case, the government ignored, and often even suppressed, the information it received. In all of 20th-century American politics, no unwritten policy was so faithfully adhered to. And why? Because, Power posits, politicians do not believe they will be held to account for the things they fail to do. In this sweeping study, she makes a powerful case that if the world is to survive, they must. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. (574 pp.) By Mary Wiltenburg