Three writers at Penn hitting jackpot of awards

The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 15, 2004

As University of Pennsylvania honchos ponder what to do with the 30th Street Post Office and other buildings they're taking over, they might save some space for a "Believe It or Not" Museum of Literary Awards.

Three Penn faculty members have been racking up prizes so fast this year, the trio may soon be tested for steroids.

"I think all of us, as writers, have only a handful of people for whom we write, or who represent some kind of ideal judges for our work," says Susan Stewart, Penn's Regan Professor of English. Her Columbarium won this year's National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award for poetry, and her scholarly study, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses - already awarded Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award - recently picked up the $50,000 Truman Capote Award for literary criticism.

"If I win a prize from fellow scholars," says Stewart, who's also a MacArthur Fellow, "I feel very gratified and encouraged because they really know what they're talking about." Getting a poetry prize from critics who represent general readers "is just tremendously rewarding because you feel you've touched people and opened that readership for poetry."

Steven Hahn likewise finds himself contemplating a broader readership. Penn's 52-year-old Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History says he was shocked by winning both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes in history this month for A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Earlier this year it also won the Merle Curti Prize for Social History.

"The only thing that was on my brain map," Hahn confides, "was 'God, if I could win the Bancroft, that would mean a lot.' " As for the Pulitzer: "You know, you have fantasies, but I basically thought, in the end, no way."

Similarly grateful these days is Paul Hendrickson, who teaches nonfiction writing at Penn. His Sons of Mississippi, which traces the legacies of seven white Mississippi sheriffs captured admiring a billy club in a menacing 1962 Life magazine photo, won both this year's NBCC award for general nonfiction and the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for nonfiction.

"I thought I had said something not unique but something that was fresh at least," remarks Hendrickson, 59, who can now look more serenely on being a 1996 National Book Award finalist for The Living and the Dead (about the Vietnam War), and a 1992 NBCC finalist for Looking for the Light, about photographer Marion Post Wolcott. "To have Sons of Mississippi validated that way makes me very proud."

Payoffs are rolling toward Penn's trio. "I'm old now," Stewart jokes, "I don't really need to be advanced." All the same, she'll be heading next year to Princeton University, an appointment in motion before her most recent accolades. "People call me up now to give speeches," Hendrickson reports. Hahn may appear this week on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is excerpting his book and has invited him to write occasional pieces. Several university presidents have called with congratulations.

"There's no question about it," Hahn observes. "If you're not on people's radar screens, you are when this happens."

All three, asked to reflect on literary prizes, concede that they introduce new subtleties into one's life.

"You get a certain level of recognition and respect," Hahn says, "but at the same time, you become an object of attack. There's a lot more to be gained by going after you. . . . Let's face it, the first question a lot of people ask is, 'Why not me?' "

Hahn recalls that after the success of his first book, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890, which won the Nevins and Turner Prizes in his discipline, one disgruntled fellow historian assigned a doctoral student to redo Hahn's research, which led to spirited journal exchanges.

Hendrickson, by contrast, agrees that the prize cachet on a trade book tends to mute critics: "On my end of it, I think it makes people back off a bit."

His problem is a different one. "It doesn't change the writer's basic insecurity. Because I thought, 'Gosh, I can now rest.' Well, that's not true, because I was able to rest for about five emotional, psychological moments. But I'm back worrying, fretting. John McPhee said once that with every new book, his confidence goes right down to zero."

Stewart shares the feeling that, "as an artist, it's the next thing that you're doing that really is important." Her enduring goal, she says, "is to slow down the reader and to get the reader to reread, to hear connections . . . ."

All three prize winners say they don't believe philosophically in a "best book" in a literary category - perhaps assuring their places in a "Believe It or Not" museum.

"I certainly don't believe my book was the best book of poetry published this year, if that's what you're asking me," Stewart says. Books of poems, she believes, ultimately "cannot be compared." That doesn't leave her "cynical" about prizes because she sees praise - a concept she's exploring in her scholarly work - as "a way of expressing our freedom and our judgment."

Hendrickson "sincerely and humbly" sees book prizes as "a crapshoot . . . I would reject that Sons of Mississippi is demonstrably any better than the other four finalists. It just happened to win because the stars were in their right places."

Winning the NBCC prize, he explains, "doesn't mean that I think it's a better book than I thought . . . I'm very keenly aware of its flaws, its imperfections . . . I have a sneaky feeling that The Living and the Dead is a better book than Sons of Mississippi, but I'm really, really proud of Sons of Mississippi."

Hahn stresses satisfaction about achieving his aims, not a sense of entitlement. He wanted to weave an accessible "narrative thread" through the history of black participation in electoral politics, to tell stories about people "who emerge and evaporate in the historical record," to spotlight a subject crucial to the "inspiring and dispiriting history of democracy in the United States." So he kept footnotes to the back, avoided using them for long disquistions, and didn't clog the main text with commentary on other scholarship. Finally, he aimed to write the book, and not just "write it up."

Even doing all that, Hahn believes, doesn't guarantee a prize: "I'm under no illusions that because I won the Pulitzer, it was the best book. . . . In the end, it's luck. . . . I've been on prize committees too, and every year it could work out differently."

That urbane grasp of the mystery of prizes may explain why all three talk more as if they'd won the lottery than received a diploma earned every credit-hour of the way. With chanciness comes lack of cynicism. If no one's fated to win a specific literary prize, anyone can.

"Guess what?" Hendrickson asks, summing up a clear consensus. "I'd be thrilled to win one again."