For writers throughout the United States, winning a Pulitzer Prize is considered as great a feat as winning a Grammy or an Oscar. This year’s winners were announced yesterday, April 18, at 3 p.m. during the 95th annual Pulitzer Prize ceremony, led by Pulitzer administrator and Columbia professor Sig Gissler. The event took place at Columbia’s School of Journalism, as per tradition, while figures from news media sources and publishing houses everywhere anxiously awaited the news.
Of the 21 awarded, three prizes were given to professors and graduates of Columbia. Professor Eric Foner was awarded the history prize for his book “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” while professor Siddhartha Mukherjee won the general nonfiction prize for his book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” Columbia alum Zhou Long garnered the music composition award for his opera “Madame White Snake.” Ron Chernow, who has also won Columbia Business School’s George S. Eccles Prize for Excellence in Economic Writing, was awarded the biography prize for his book “Washington: A Life.” Another notable point of the ceremony was Jennifer Egan’s highly anticipated win of the fiction prize for her book “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”
The award was originally created by publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who felt it was necessary that writers across the country be recognized for their dedication to the written word. During his lifetime, Pulitzer sought to inspire journalists everywhere, introducing innovative techniques of what he called “new journalism” to his publications–methods that essentially led to the mass circulation of news that exists today. In an effort to ensure that all students interested in news writing would have a chance to pursue their dreams from within the walls of a respected university, Pulitzer left two million dollars to Columbia University to found the world’s first journalism school.
In 1917, shortly after Pulitzer’s death in 1911 and according to his wishes, prizes began being awarded annually to writers who continue Pulitzer’s legacy through their work in journalism, letters (fiction, nonfiction, biography, history, and poetry), drama, and music composition. The award has celebrated great talents such as William Faulkner, John Cheever, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Friedman, Steven Millhauser and Jhumpa Lahiri for their contributions.
Gissler kicked off this year’s ceremony with a bit of humor: “I hope you like my Pulitzer Prize tie….It has champagne bubbles on it because we’re going to celebrate later.” Audience members laughed appreciatively as they waited for the results. As they were being announced, many nodded their heads in agreement and exchanged smiles amongst one another—for the most part, everyone seemed to be in accord.
Pleased as the audience seemed with the 2011 Pulitzer Prize recipients, one could not help but notice a common theme among the queries when Professor Sissler opened up the floor for a Q-and-A after the announcements. All attention seemed to be aimed at the world’s growing infatuation with digital news and media. Questions like, “Were WikiLeaks posts submitted and considered for the International Reporting prize?” and, “Have the roles of Facebook and Twitter influenced the breaking news category in any way?” took up the majority of the session.
Many also asked about new categories relating to online media. While Gissler admitted to the importance of digital news and writing in today’s day and age, he met proposals for new online-only categories with a smile. “Almost any form of human life has been proposed for a Pulitzer category,” he said, “and if we end up with too many categories, it may cheapen the currency.”
Regardless of how the manner of presentation changes in the digital age, the hope is that writers will continue to uphold Joseph Pulitzer’s love for and commitment to the progress of journalism and the arts.
Update: Two additional honorees have Columbia ties. Amy Nutt, a graduate of the journalism school who currently sits on its faculty as an adjunct, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Jeff Gottlieb, one of the lead reporters on a series in the Los Angeles Times that won the Pulitzer for Public Service, graduated from the School of Journalism in 1980.