Two more Anisfield-Wolf winners were named as Pulitzer finalists: novelist Tommy Orange, this year’s fiction winner for his debut, “There There” and historian Jill Lepore, who won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2006, a finalist in criticism for her writing in the New Yorker.
Three historians selected the Douglass biography: Annette Gordon-Reed, Tiya Miles and Marcus Rediker. Gordon-Reed, who chaired the jury, has her own Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” a 2009 winner that excavated the suppressed record of Thomas Jefferson’s black family.
Staples cites Gordon-Reed in one column the Pulitzer judges singled out: “The Legacy of Monticello’s First Black Family,” published July 4, 2018. And he quotes Frederick Douglass in another, “The Racism Behind Women’s Suffrage.”
The Pulitzer elevated Stapes, 68, for his “editorials written with extraordinary moral clarity that charted the racial fault lines in the United States at a polarizing moment in the nation’s history.” He received an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1995 for his memoir, “Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White.”
Frederick Douglass, a reader suspects, also might have lauded Gordon-Reed’s work. Blight emphasizes that Douglass – the most photographed American of the 19th century – existed as a man of words.
The historian, 70, described this book as “the biography of a voice.” A Yale University professor, Blight believes Douglass’ speeches and constant travel also made him the most heard individual of his century.
The Pulitzer jury called the biography “a breathtaking history that demonstrates the scope of Frederick Douglass’ influence through deep research on his writings, intellectual evolution and his relationships.” Blight won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
Blight states that the former slave’s great gift “is that he found ways to convert the scars Covey [a slave master] left on his body into words that might change the world. His travail under Covey’s yoke became Douglass’ crucifixion and resurrection.”
The Biblical language is intentional – Douglass embraced a personal Christianity as a teenager in Baltimore, studying sermons as templates for his oratory. He escaped bondage at 20, and lived nine years a fugitive until his freedom was purchased.
“Never trust anyone who writes three autobiographies – they are manipulating you on every page,” Blight said wryly of Douglass at the Virginia Festival of the Book. He credited the collection of Savannah surgeon Walter O. Evans, who saved ten Douglass family scrapbooks, with making his book possible.
I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise
As we bid adieu to 2018, allow us to shine a last, lingering reading light on ten highlights: the year’s titles from Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners. It should surprise no one that several are already acclaimed as the best-of-the-year. All are worth reading.
“American Histories: Stories” by John Edgar Wideman
In the latest literary stroke from an American master, these 21 short stories “are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention and a dry sensibility,” according to one critic. Another calls them “irresistible” and “profoundly moving.” The first, “JB & FD” imagines conversations between John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Another tale takes up with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still another, “Williamsburg Bridge,” rests with a man contemplating his intent to jump into the East River. When Wideman won an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in 2011, he told the crowd a writing life still lay ahead. Now 76, the former Rhodes Scholar from Pittsburgh and MacArthur “genius” recipient speaks the truth still.
“Feel Free” by Zadie Smith
The exuberant, cerebral novelist collects her essays and landed on six best-of-the-year lists. She arranges the book into five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf” and “Feel Free.” All the writing dates to the Obama administration. Maureen Corrigan describes the best of it, like Smith’s essay “Notes on Attunement” about disliking and then loving Joni Mitchell’s voice, as freeing. Also here is Smith’s much discussed essay on “Get Out,” in which she marks as fantasy “the notion that we can get out of each other’s way, mark a clean cut between black and white.” The cultural critic is often joyful, essentially saying art makes and marks freedom. Smith won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “On Beauty” in 2006.
“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight
This magisterial biography argues that its subject was among most transformative figures of the 19th-century. It begins with President Obama speaking of Douglass’ “mighty leonine gaze” at the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It ends with the Robert Hayden’s superb poem “Frederick Douglass” that asserts when freedom comes, it will be “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives/Fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” Blight, a fluid, graceful writer and Yale historian, has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to this text. He won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman
In her crisp, beautifully researched biography, Faderman makes the case that Harvey Milk led many lives before he was martyred: Navy diver, math teacher, Wall Street securities analyst, Broadway gofer. Only in his final few years did he find his footing as a San Francisco politician. She begins by describing him as “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” and depicts a complex man with real enemies, real courage, real flaws and boundless energy. Much that animated Milk traces to his Jewish roots, making this portrait a snug fit in the Yale University Press’ acclaimed Jewish Lives series. Faderman won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Gay Revolution,” another definitive history, in 2016.
“In the House in the Dark of the Woods” by Laird Hunt
Every good book list should contain a fable, and the gifted Hunt delivers a stellar haunting with his latest, palm-sized novel. It opens in colonial New England with the classic trope: a woman goes missing in a forest. Hunt, a Brown University professor, lets his eighth novel excavate ancient fears of females kidnapped, women straying and maternal abandonment. But here the central figures narrates her own agency: “Through the dark woods I walked, thinking less and less of my son and of my man.” Hunt creates rapt historical fiction, as he did in “Kind One,” his Anisfield-Wolf honored novel from 2013. It serves as the start of a profound Midwestern trilogy, including “Neverhome” and “The Evening Road.”
“Invisible” by Stephen L. Carter
Subtitled “The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,” this biography of the author’s grandmother astonishes. Eunice Hunton Carter, herself the granddaughter of slaves, was 8 in 1907 when she declared she wanted to be a lawyer “to make sure the bad people went to jail.” A team of 20 crackerjack attorneys assembled to convict Lucky Luciano; the other 19 were white men. Thanks to Carter’s strategy, the prosecution won. The author, a Yale law professor, realized while writing this book that an earlier novel had been an unsuccessful homage to this formidable, intimidating Harlem original. In 2003, he won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
“John Woman” by Walter Mosley
The author thought about this political and philosophical thriller for 20 years. It contains a murder and a disappearance, but it is not, Mosley says, a mystery. Instead it centers on a boy, Cornelius Jones, who is 12 as the story begins. His father is a silent film projectionist in the East Village; his mother is a sensualist backing out of Cornelius’ life. Five years later, Cornelius reinvents himself as “John Woman” and starts an intellectual movement drawing on his father’s notions of the slipperiness of history. The author, who won his Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” describes his new book as “a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
“A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems” by Marilyn Chin
In her first book since winning a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for “Hard Love Province,” Chin draws together 30 years of dazzling, transgressive, witty work as an activist poet. “From the start of my career I waxed personal and political and have sought to be an activist-subversive-radical-immigrant-feminist-international-Buddhist-neoclasical nerd poet,” she writes from her home in San Diego, where she teaches comparative literature at the state university. Chin is masterful at making pain both visible and less tragic by throwing it into a cheeky, double-vision, East-West light. She writes to her grandfather, on his 100th birthday, “This is why the baboon’s ass is red.”
“A Shout in the Ruins” by Kevin Powers
The author of the deeply moving debut novel “The Yellow Birds,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2013, shifts his story-telling onto his home turf of Richmond, Va. He unspools two intertwined tales – one set at the end of the Civil War; the second steps off 90 years later as construction for the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike dismantles the city’s African-American neighborhood. Powers has said that he is drawn to stories of communities responding to violence. Called “gorgeous, devastating” in The New York Times, the novel suggests readers grasp that “the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.”
“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan
This picaresque yet deeply haunting third book from a brilliant Canadian author landed on ten best-of-the-year lists. She won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2012 for her equally stunning “Half-Blood Blues,” a European war novel set to a jazz beat. Both books were short-listed for the Booker Prize. In “Washington Black,” Edugyan begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados, where her title character is an 11-year-old who escapes bondage in a hot-air balloon piloted by the master’s brother. The story is an original in the derring-do explorer’s genre, probing self-invention, betrayal and the gradations of freedom — particularly as it limits both men. And the writing here moves like clear water across landscape and dialogue.
Yale professor David W. Blight spoke at the esteemed City Club the day after our Anisfield-Wolf ceremony to speak about his latest work, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. Watch the video and let us know if you’ve had a chance to read his work. We welcome your comments.
We won’t spend too much time on an introduction today; let’s get right to the meaty stuff. Recently, our 2012 winners all had a chance to speak with Dred-Scott Keyes on the Public Radio Exchange to discuss their books and the deeper themes within. Take a listen to David W. Blight and Esi Edugyan in part one, and David Livingstone Smith and Arnold Rampersad in part two:
Some of the world’s greatest historians—David W. Blight, Henry Louis Gates, Taylor Branch, etc.—are also Anisfield-Wolf award winners. They know their subjects backward and forward, being able to recall dates, times, places with astonishing accuracy, clarity and insight. They make it possible for us to get to know some of history’s most important leaders in a way that is completely accessible.
That is what David W. Blight aims to do with his upcoming book, his third focusing on the life of Frederick Douglass, who he claims is the “most important and famous African American leader in the nineteenth century.” Check out the above video to learn more about the man who escaped slavery to become President Abraham.
We are roughly a month away from the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf ceremony and is customary, we are alerting fans to several opportunities to meet our 2012 winners.
Cuyahoga County Public Library, Beachwood Branch (In the Meeting Room) 25501 Shaker Boulevard Beachwood, Ohio 44122-2398 Corner of Richmond & Shaker Boulevard Wednesday, September 12, 2012 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM Registration is recommended. Click here to register.
Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities (Clark Hall Room 309) Wednesday, September 12, 2012 4:30 PM – 5:30 PM This event is free and open to the public. Registration is recommended. Click here to register.
We’ll be spending this week exploring the lives and works of the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Award winners. First up is David W. Blight, 2012 winner for nonfiction, for his work, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.
He’s working on a biography of Frederick Douglass to be released in 2013.
He is, as to be expected from his body of work, one of the nation’s most preeminent scholars on the Civil War. (Read his thoughts on whether the war could have been prevented.)
His course at Yale, The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, is available for free on Yale’s Open Courses website. Check it out here.
His work has been acknowledged by many, as his long list of awards and accolades can prove. He’s won the Frederick Douglass Prize, the Lincoln Prize, the Merli Curti Award, the James A. Rawley Prize, and Bancroft Prize and now, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
He believes: “The civil war is an event (and will probably always be an event) through which Americans have to somehow define themselves. It’s the event that first tested and destroyed the original American republic…” Catch the rest of his thoughts here: