It was a year for beauty. The 2014 Pulitzer Prizes in the arts, announced Monday, included awards for a colossal musical response to nature, a blockbuster novel about art, exquisite poetic architecture, and beautifully told true stories of slaves in the early colonies, Margaret Fuller, and toxic pollution.
Novelist Donna Tartt surprised few in winning for fiction with The Goldfinch. Soon after its appearance, it became a reading-circle, not to say cult, favorite. It has history, art (a painting of a finch chained to its perch) - and Theo Decker, one of the best characters in a long time. Associated Press reviewer Mae Anderson wrote: "Tartt's characters wrestle with the question of whether they are any freer than the finch, or just as imprisoned by their own unreliable hearts or fate."
Vijay Seshadri won the poetry prize with his collection 3 Sections. An adroit, witty poet, Seshadri is so charming, so chatty, that the ambitious reach of his poems needs no apology. Especially since they often score:
How strange would it be if you met yourself on the street?
How strange if you liked yourself,
took yourself into your arms, married your own self,
propagated by techniques known only to you,
and then populated the world?
For biography, Megan Marshall won for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, about a woman who lived essentially a 20th-century life in the New England intellectual world of the mid-19th century. Fuller edited Thoreau; became a correspondent and front-page columnist for the New York Tribune; crusaded for the rights of women and the poor; wrote perhaps the first great U.S. feminist book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century; and knew a passionate life worth the telling. All this before she died at 40.
For drama, the three finalists all were women, and the winner was Annie Baker, for The Flick, about the staff of a Massachusetts art-movie theater. For history, Alan Taylor won for The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, also a finalist for the National Book Award. Taylor examines why runaway slaves in the early colonies sometimes gravitated to the British as conduits to freedom. It's the gifted Taylor's second Pulitzer (he also won in 1996).
The nature-inspired composer John Luther Adams won for music with Become Ocean, a symphonic work that premiered in Seattle last June. It's a titanic evocation of sea movement - inexorable is the direction at the top of the score. Also worth noting: Become Ocean is a gigantic palindrome, reversing itself midcurrent and playing to a climactic end that mirrors the first half. Alex Ross of the New Yorker, himself a Pulitzer winner, called it "disorienting, unsettling," and reported that "I went away reeling."
For nonfiction, Dan Fagin won for Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. What happened in that Jersey town is one of the best-documented, and one of the few scientifically agreed-on, cases in which industrial toxic pollution led directly to a cluster of cancers in human beings. Reviewing the book for The Inquirer, Dawn Fallik called it "immaculately researched" and wrote that Toms River may not endear Fagin to that town's "real estate agents, but its exhaustive reporting and honest look at the cause, obstacles, and unraveling of a cancerous trail should be required environmental reading."