Aretha Franklin received an honorary Pulitzer Prize on Monday, as judges praised the late icon “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture.” Competitive Pulitzers were awarded to books about two other giants of American history: Frederick Douglass and Alain Locke.
David W. Blight’s 900-page “Frederick Douglass” was named the best work of history, while the biography prize went to Jeffrey C. Stewart’s “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.” Richard Powers’ innovative novel “The Overstory,” which shows us the world through the perspective of trees, won for fiction. The drama prize went to “Fairview,” by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and Eliza Griswold’s “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America” won for general nonfiction. Ellen Reid’s opera “p r i s m” was given the music award, and Forrest Gander’s elegiac “Be With” the poetry prize.
The lives of Franklin, Douglass and Locke spanned and helped define more than a century of political and social change: Douglass was the country’s leading abolitionist of the 19th century, Locke the so-called “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s and Franklin a transcendent and inspiring voice of the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Franklin, who died last summer, was the first woman singled out for an honorary Pulitzer, which has been given to Bob Dylan and John Coltrane among others.
Powers, 61, has long been praised by critics and fellow writers for his blend of science, literature and technology; Margaret Atwood has likened his gifts and ambitions to Herman Melville’s. The Pulitzer for fiction could well bring commercial success to the author, whose previous works include “The Echo Maker,” winner of the National Book Award.
Drury’s play “Fairview,” which skewers white people’s obsession with African American stereotypes, begins as a contemporary domestic comedy involving a well-off black family and ends with the invisible fourth wall destroyed and the audience pulled down a rabbit hole involving race and identity.
The Pulitzer board called it a “hard-hitting drama that examines race in a highly conceptual, layered structure, ultimately bringing audiences into the actors’ community to face deep-seated prejudices.”
The play was originally commissioned and produced by Soho Rep and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Sibblies Drury is New York City-based playwright whose plays include “Really, “Social Creatures” and “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation.”