Intersex novel, gay playwright win Pulitzers

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 08 2003 12:00 AM ET

On Monday the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to Jeffrey Eugenides for Middlesex, a story of sexual and ethnic identity that centers on an intersexed heroine. In the drama category, Pulitzer voters bypassed openly gay three-time Pulitzer winner Edward Albee, a finalist for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and chose the little-known Anna in the Tropics, by another out playwright, Nilo Cruz.

In Cruz's play a cigar factory owner's daughter has an affair with a lector, a man hired to read to the workers while they toil. One of the books he reads is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and the novel soon mirrors the action onstage. Cruz found out that he had won the prize while at the train station in New Haven, Conn., where he is teaching a class in playwrighting at Yale University. "I was in shock,'' he said. "Immediately I broke down crying. I was on this train taking me to Paradise. My play has to do with Anna Karenina [in which the heroine commits suicide by jumping in front of a train], so it was so appropriate.''

Big books prevailed in the arts. Eugenides's work runs more than 500 pages, while the biography prize winner, Master of the Senate, the third volume of biographer Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson series, is 1,100 pages long. History prize winner Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn, is just over 700 pages. Reaching Atkinson, whose book is the first of a planned World War II trilogy, proved especially challenging. He is currently embedded in Iraq with the 101st Airborne. "This is so fabulous,'' said Atkinson, who won a Pulitzer for national reporting, in 1982, when he was at The Kansas City Times. "I'm hot and tired and filthy and completely thrilled." He is currently on assignment for The Washington Post.

The general nonfiction prize went to A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power, who has already won the National Book Critics Circle award. The winner for poetry was Moy Sand and Gravel by Paul Muldoon. And the prize for music went to On the Transmigration of Souls, by John Adams, which the New York Philharmonic premiered. Adams's work is a tribute to victims, survivors, and heroes of the September 11 terrorist attacks. One of America's most successful classical composers, he has a history of taking on difficult subjects, including President Nixon's trip to China and the 1985 killing of a handicapped American Jew by Palestinian guerrillas aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro.

Caro too has known both success and controversy. He won the Pulitzer in 1975 for The Power Broker, an often devastating chronicle of the mighty municipal builder Robert Moses. He has spent the past quarter century investigating Johnson, to great acclaim, strong sales, and considerable abuse. The first two books, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, each won a National Book Critics Circle award but also led some commentators and Johnson aides to accuse Caro of hating his subject and distorting his life. Caro has insisted from the beginning that he considered Johnson a creature of both ambition and benevolence and that Master of the Senate emphasized his legislative genius in getting Congress, in 1957, to pass the first civil rights bill of the 20th century. "You know, there's been a lot of struggle in doing these books, a lot of attacks on me from the Johnson loyalists,'' Caro said Monday. "But I think I always held onto what I learned in school, that if a book was done truly enough, it would endure.''

Muldoon, a native of Northern Ireland, has been writing poetry since he was 17. Currently director of Princeton University's creative writing program, Muldoon has experimented with many forms of poetry, from haiku to sestina. "The terrible thing about writing poetry is that most people...don't get better at it; if anything, they get worse," Muldoon said Monday. "So the fact that someone thinks it's semi-good and worth reading after 30 years is important."

The fiction prize for Middlesex almost surely marks a milestone in Pulitzer history: the first book so honored to be narrated by an intersexed protagonist, a person whose reproductive organs and other physical characteristics are of indeterminate sex. In the novel, Calliope Helen Stephanides is born a girl. As a teenager she begins growing a mustache and otherwise turning more than "a little bit freakish.'' Eugenides got the idea for Middlesex after reading a book by French philosopher Michel Foucault that contained a memoir by a 19th-century "hermaphrodite," as the intersexed were then called. "[The intersexed person] could hardly describe the experience. She wrote around it," he told the Associated Press in an interview last fall.