Pulitzer winners in letters, drama and music

The 2010 Pulitzer Prizes for letters, drama and music were awarded to an epic biography, a small but astonishing novel, an examination of the nuclear arms race, a violin concerto and an edgy musical — with a special nod to an American songwriting icon.

Music winner

Composer Jennifer Higdon for her Violin Concerto

The co-commission of the Indianapolis Symphony debuted in 2009 with the orchestra and Hilary Hahn as the soloist.


Higdon, who holds a teaching post at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, has received commissions from major orchestras around the country, including the Atlanta Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Higdon won a Grammy Award in January in the category of contemporary classical composition for her Percussion Concerto.

“I turned on my cellphone and I had all these messages and I thought that was unusual,” she said. “So I guess I found out a little bit after everyone else.” She said she wrote the concerto with Hahn in mind and that the piece is intended to “show off her gifts.”

Other finalists in the music category were Fred Lerdahl’s String Quartet No. 3 and Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer.”

Drama winner


“Next to Normal,” book by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt

The edgy musical tells the story of a dysfunctional suburban family coping with psychological disorders and a host of domestic problems. The musical opened in 2008 at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre before transferring to Broadway last March. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won three. “Next to Normal” joins the small group of musicals to have won the Pulitzer, which has generally gone to straight plays.

The creators of the show said they were stunned and shocked upon learning of their win. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Yorkey said. “The only clear thought I’ve had is that when you write for public consumption, you want to know that it has an impact somehow. And this is an unbelievable affirmation.”

The Pulitzer board made the rare but not unprecedented decision of ignoring the list of finalists submitted by the nominating jury. The finalists were Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” and Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play.”


Biography winner:

“The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” by T.J Stiles

A complex portrait of the man who was respected if not liked, leveraging transportation assets to become one of the richest men in late 19th century America.

“I worked on my book for about seven years and I had no idea it would be so timely when it was published,” Stiles said.


The finalists were “Cheever: A Life” by Blake Bailey and “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography” by John Milton Cooper Jr.

Fiction winner:

“Tinkers” by Paul Harding

An astonishing novel that evokes the past of a man in his last, confused days, “Tinkers” is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction.


Harding said: “I worked on it for five, six years and actually tried to have it published, but couldn’t find an agent or a publisher. From the moment I saw one copy in between two covers, it was all gravy from there.”

The finalists were “Love in Infant Monkeys” by Lydia Millet and “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin.

Nonfiction winner:

“The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy,” by David E. Hoffman


A narrative of the terrifying nuclear escalation of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that resulted in stockpiles we are still attempting to disarm.

“My goal was to show the history of the end of the Cold War through both sides — the U.S. side and the Soviet side,” Hoffman said. “I really felt that especially the Soviet side of the story hadn’t been well told because we didn’t know.”

“How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities” by John Cassidy and “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright were the finalists.

Poetry winner:


“Versed” by Rae Armantrout

The winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, “Versed” has been described as a witty, playful and “metaphysically alert” poetry collection.

Armantrout said, “I’m stunned. This was not on my radar screen at all. Tomorrow is my birthday, and this was a very nice birthday present.”

The poetry finalists were “Tryst” by Angie Estes and “Inseminating the Elephant” by Lucia Perillo.


History winner:

“Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World” by Liaquat Ahamed.

An account of four international bankers who played key roles in the Great Depression and the worldwide economic configuration that followed.

“I’m very thrilled,” Ahamed said. “I know people liked the book, the fact that they have recognized it as a work of scholarship is doubly rewarding.”


Other finalists: “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City” by Greg Grandin and “Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815" by Gordon S. Wood.

Special award

A posthumous special citation to Hank Williams for his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.

The Associated Press and Times staff writer Randall Roberts contributed to this report.