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by Joe Pagetta
When Townsend, Tennessee novelist Richard Powers won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction earlier this month for his book, The Overstory, it was, as Chapter 16 reminded us in its newsletter, the first time in a decade that a Tennessee-connected writer had won the prestigious award. The last time was in 2009, when Chattanooga native Jon Meacham won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in biography for American Lion, his profile of Andrew Jackson. Chapter 16 also reminded us that Tennessee writers have won quite a few Pulitzers. In 2016, on the 100th anniversary of the awards, the site published an entire series of essays by contemporary writers on the winning works.
While not every writer who has won a Pulitzer Prize is represented in the Tennessee State Museum collection, we do have artifacts and books connected to many of them. Most notable is Alex Haley, whose Special Pulitzer Prize for 1976’s Roots is currently on display in the Museum’s Tennessee Transforms exhibition, along with a portrait of the writer by painter Simmie Knox dated to the mid-1970s. A photo portrait of the writer by Dennis Wile, commissioned in 1986 by Maggie Sherman, also hangs in the Museum’s temporary exhibition, In Search of the New: Tennessee Art After 1900. Although born in Ithaca, New York, Haley spent his boyhood in Henning in West Tennessee. That home is now open to visitors as the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center. Haley is buried on the grounds, and the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Displayed along with Haley’s Pulitzer is a first edition of James Agee’s posthumously-published and Pulitzer Prize winning 1957 autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family. The recognition for the novel brought wider attention to the Knoxville-born writer’s body work, especially his 1941 Depression-era collaboration with photographer Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The work sold poorly when it was first released, but was republished after Agee’s death in 1961 and since gone on to be considered a classic. A first edition of the original 1941 printing sits in the Museum’s collection. Agee’s words can be found elsewhere in the Museum, as well. A quote from his prose poem, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” which acts as the preamble to A Death in the Family, appears as wall text in our current exhibition, Between the Layers: Art and Story in Tennessee Quilts.
We have another Pulitzer Prize-winning first edition in the collection: Trenton, Tennessee novelist Peter Taylor’s 1986 work, A Summons to Memphis. The book was the first selection of the initial iteration of the Tennessee State Museum book club when it launched earlier this year.
Thomas Sigismund Stribling, better known as T.S. Stribling, was Tennessee’s first Pulitzer winner. In 1933, he won the award for his novel, The Store, set in Florence, Alabama. We have a number of clothing items that belong to his wife, Louella Kloss Stribling of Clifton, Tennessee, herself an accomplished pianist and violinist. The couple’s retirement home in Clifton, built by Louella’s father, now houses a museum about them, as well as the town’s library. It is pictured in a 1998 painting in our collection by Susan Cassidy Wilhoit that features two views of Wayne County, with the T.S. Stribling Museum in the upper left, and a panoramic view of a ferry across the Tennessee River in Clifton.
Robert Penn Warren won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, All the King’s Men. Born in Guthrie, Kentucky, just outside of Clarksville on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, he graduated from Clarksville High School, and then summa cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1925. In the Museum’s collection is a cloth-bound first edition of the 1930 collection, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners, autographed on the inside front cover by many of the Southern writers who made up The Agrarians, including Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Lyle Lanier, John D. Wade, Andrew Lytle, Donald Davidson & John Crowe Ransom. The Agrarians, who were mostly Vanderbilt instructors and students, also included Stark Young, John G. Fletcher, Frank Owsley, Herman C. Nixon, and Henry B. Kline.
Other Tennessee writers and winners of the Pulitzer include Charles Wright of Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, who won the Poetry Prize in 1998 for his book, Black Zodiac; and Cormac McCarthy, who won the award for fiction in 2007 for his novel, The Road. McCarthy graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School, attended the University of Tennessee and lived for many years in Tennessee prior to his Pulitzer recognition. And then, of course, there is Tennessee Williams, who although he was not born in Tennessee, is inextricably tied to the state. The playwright left his estate to The University of the South (Sewanee), as a memorial to his maternal grandfather, the Reverend Walter E. Dakin, who studied at Sewanee’s School of Theology in 1895. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, in 1948 for A Streetcar named Desire, and in 1955, for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
While not necessarily represented in the collection of the Museum as significantly as his 2009 subject, Andrew Jackson, Meacham’s knowledge and respect for history is certainly represented in our building and galleries. He is one of the scholars featured in the introductory film of our Forging a Nation exhibition, and it was Meacham who delivered the keynote speech when ground was broken on the new Museum in April, 2016.
“History is a conversation between the living and the dead with the goal of improving the lot of the yet unborn,” said Meacham at the time. “Museums form the sure foundation of that ever-changing, ever-challenging conversation.” We think he would agree that great literature, drama and poetry are part of that same conversation.
- Chapter 16
- Essays on Tennessee Pulitzer Winners from Chapter 16, an initiative of Humanities Tennessee, of the Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prize board and the Federation of State Humanities Council in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes.
- The Pulitzer Prizes
- The Tennessee Encyclopedia
Joe Pagetta is the Tennessee State Museum Director of Communications