In this issue of On, WPR’s Erika Janik continues our celebration of the Pulitzer Prize centennial by testing our knowledge of winners with Wisconsin roots.
Contemplating the fate of lesser-known Pulitzer winners got us thinking about the power of cultural institutions to help us remember, or let us forget. We share a few stories from some grant recipients that we think you’ll enjoy.
We invite you to read On.
In this issue of On:
- Welcome: From the Director’s Desk
- Featured: On Remembering by Erika Janik
- Recently Funded Projects
- In the Spotlight
- Final Thoughts
In this issue of On, Erika Janik continues our celebration of the Pulitzer Prize centennial by testing our knowledge of winners with Wisconsin roots.
It wasn’t hard to find quite a few. Even if you haven’t read all of them, most readers will recognize names like Thornton Wilder and Edna Ferber, although you may not know about their lives in Wisconsin. Other winners may not be as familiar. What about Zona Gale? Or Hamlin Garland, who wrote fiction, poetry, essays, and a biography that won the prize in 1922?
Contemplating the fate of forgotten Pulitzer winners got me thinking about the power of cultural institutions to determine what continues to have currency and what sinks from view. We’re glad that this year, thanks to the respect still accorded Pulitzer and its prize winners, we are being prodded to read some authors whose reputations have lasted, and also challenged to consider some who have been set aside.
I was recently reminded that the WHC once gave out Governor’s Awards in the humanities. In 2003, we gave the award for Excellence in Humanities Programming to a group in Waupaca. I have to admit that I might not have remembered that award, if not for a letter that came out of the blue from a long-time Winchester Academy board member. She wrote to say that receiving the Governor’s Award had a real impact on their group: local support grew, the budget went from shoestring to secure, and today their events are sometimes standing room only.
It seems almost wrong that the WHC had that much of an effect on cultural life in central Wisconsin simply by giving an award – just an honor, not even cash! On the other hand, the Winchester Academy really does serve their community in ways that we and local folks value. The group knew what they were doing in 2003, and built on that success.
Does that mean that Pulitzer got it wrong with Hamlin Garland? Or has he been forgotten because for decades there has been no publisher, critic, or noted scholar who reminded readers of his worth? This year, thanks to the power of the Pulitzer Prize, he and other forgotten writers are being remembered. Maybe they will disappoint, or maybe surprise us.
Dena Wortzel’s day job is as executive director of the WHC. The rest of the time she can be found wrestling hay bales, messing with animals, and watching the grass grow on her farm in Hollandale.
Essay by Erika Janik
In her 1938 obituary, the New York Times hailed Zona Gale as “one of the most intensely American writers of her time.” She often wrote of her hometown in south central Wisconsin, making real to “Americans the setting of the old town – its river, its railroad yards, its small factories and above all, the rich farming community that surrounds Portage.”
Gale became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1921, the same year that Edith Wharton won for her novel The Age of Innocence. In her life, Gale wrote more than 25 books, numerous acclaimed plays, several hundred short stories and poems, and countless essays. Noted Wisconsin author and Gale biographer August Derleth commented about Gale, “once having known her, you could not forget her.”
You’ve probably never heard of Miss Lulu Bett, the play that won her the Pulitzer, and Gale herself is now all but forgotten.
You might think winning a Pulitzer Prize would ensure an enduring literary legacy, or at least name recognition. But the sad truth is that most writers are forgotten. The path to fame or obscurity is often a series of nearly random events unrelated to the quality of the work.
Sometimes an artist may be remembered primarily through a single work. Madison-born Thornton Wilder won three Pulitzers in both drama and fiction, but it is his play Our Town, which won the prize in 1938, that keeps his name alive today. Ever since its Broadway debut, Our Town has seen regular professional revivals, has been adapted for radio, film, television, and opera, and remains a perennial favorite of student and amateur companies.
Wisconsin Life from Wisconsin Public Radio explores the lives of five Pulitzer Prize winners with Wisconsin ties: Edna Ferber, Hamlin Garland, Thornton Wilder, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Zona Gale. Listen to the radio essays here!
One of the great pleasures in producing such a series is the discovery of authors and works one has previously overlooked or, what is worse, never knew existed at all. Rediscovery of these writers can feel a bit like communing with ghosts, blowing the dust from the covers to befriend a person we never knew in life but one with something to tell us about where we’ve been and where we might be going.
I first encountered Gale after moving to Wisconsin for graduate school. I knew nothing about her when I first pulled a book of hers off a shelf – her exotic name had caught my eye (Gale herself counseled an aspiring writer that a unique name could help boost a career). But I found her depictions of Portage – thinly masked as Friendship Village and sometimes Prospect – a way in to understanding and connecting with the new state I’d made my home. What better way to discover a place and its people than through its stories?
Remarkably, Zona Gale was not Portage’s only prizewinner. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner made the American frontier a potent symbol of the national character and values. Turner’s love of history was nurtured in Portage where his father worked as a journalist and amateur local historian. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in history and to teach at the University of Wisconsin and then Harvard until his retirement in 1924. His views, widely debated in his time and long after his death, laid the foundation for the modern study of the American West and burnished iconic images of rugged cowboys and ideas about the freedom of open spaces and the adventure of frontier settlement.
Edna Ferber wasn’t born in Wisconsin but she graduated high school in Appleton and began her writing career as a journalist for the Appleton Daily Crescent. She was disciplined and prolific, claiming that once a book had been started, nothing but death could separate her from it: “Clothes are unimportant. Teeth go unfilled. Your idea of bliss is to wake up on a Monday morning knowing that you haven’t a single engagement for the entire week. You are cradled in a white paper cocoon tied up with typewriter ribbon.” The most read American woman in the 1920s, Ferber is now remembered, if she’s remembered at all, for the musicals and movies made from her novels, including Show Boat. Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, So Big, tells the story of a widowed mother’s struggle to forge a better life for herself and her son. It doesn’t sound that innovative until you consider that she wrote frankly and openly about sexism and poverty in 1924.
Hamlin Garland spoke bluntly about another topic: farm life. Having worked on his family’s farm, Garland had no interest in the romantic picture of rural life and farming often depicted in late 19th century novels. “It appears to me that the time has come to tell the truth about the barn yard’s daily grind,” asserted Garland. He wrote short stories, novels, and essays about the harsh realities of farming and the oppression of farmers, and promoted a wide variety of reforms to improve their lives, including women’s rights.
These are only a taste of the stories to come.
It is rewarding to revisit these works and their authors while exploring the historical moment in which they were deemed worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.
It is a common impulse to want to keep up with what critics are praising today, but in so doing, we often lose sight of the venerable and prized work that that has been on the shelves for more than a few years, let alone a few decades. In this centennial year of the Pulitzer Prizes, we’ll honor again some of our own.
Erika Janik is a freelance writer and the executive producer of Wisconsin Life at Wisconsin Public Radio. She is the author of Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine, Apple: A Global History, Madison: A History of a Model City, A Short History of Wisconsin, and Odd Wisconsin: Amusing, Perplexing and Unlikely Stories from Wisconsin’s Past.
Learn more about each of these WHC-funded projects here!
In the Spotlight
Memorializing is a special kind of remembering. The Highground Veterans Memorial Park in Neillsville, WI will unveil a new WHC-funded exhibit in August that remembers the Vietnam War through photographs taken by 22 servicemen who served there. (Find out details on our Calendar)
In 2014, Marissa Roth, a photojournalist who has worked for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other publications, and was on a team that won a Pulitzer Prize, met June Berg, coordinator of the Learning Center at The Highground. June had been helping veterans convert their personal photos from Vietnam into digital files. The two women started talking and an idea was born.
“My War: Wartime Photographs by Vietnam Veterans,” an exhibit curated by Roth & Berg, features 72 photos taken during the nearly 20-year conflict. Roth describes the photos as “emulsified visual poetry” recording youthful experiences of daily life, mundane moments, and poignant personal observations. The photos, which will become a traveling exhibit after a three-month debut at The Highground, are accompanied by personal writings such as letters home and journal entries.
The Vietnam War has been called the war we watched from our living rooms. Many of the now- iconic images — photos that were taken by professionals and military photographers — continue to shape how we remember, and understand, the conflict at home and abroad, and its impact. In contrast, “My War” remembers the in-between moments.
De Pere Historical Society is taking its “Photo Shows” to assisted living facilities with WHC support. Historic photos from the society’s archives are explained and the audience is asked to help provide additional content, turning the events into fun, interactive exchanges of historical knowledge. This image from 1890s was recently donated by the 93-year-old daughter of one of the children above.
This handcrafted chair by Alan Anderson is based on a design by Frank Lloyd Wright. Anderson is one of more than two dozen presenters available to speak at no cost to organizations across Wisconsin through the WHC’s ShopTalk program. In his talk, “The Unknown Craftsman: Creating, and Re-creating, Furniture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” Anderson reflects on the transmission of craft skills, and asks us to remember that woodworkers of great skill – whose names we don’t know or remember – were the builders of Wright’s famous furniture.
Photo by Alan Anderson
Former members of the WHC’s board have come together to support our work through a new “Alumni Circle”! In their first few months, alums met twice and raised over $5,000 toward a book about work that is part of the Working Lives Project. Alums are excited to serve as ambassadors for the WHC at programs across the state, and will be spreading the word in their communities. At a recent meeting in Madison, alums previewed a ShopTalk presentation by folklorist Jim Leary. Several are working on bringing ShopTalk to their hometowns.
If you are an alum and haven’t gotten involved yet, contact co-chairs John Hanson or Tish Crawford to find out how to join. If you would like to be considered for membership on the WHC board, nomination forms are available here.
Read more about our wonderful Alumni Circle here!
Hi, I am Carmelo, the new director of the Working Lives Project. I am a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, turned Wisconsinite. I came to the WHC after three years working for UW-Extension as a youth development educator. Before that, I worked for the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, where I coordinated museum interpretation and cultural programs at several museums and archaeological sites. My educational background includes a BA in European History, and a Post-Bachelor Certificate in Record Management and Archives, both of these degrees from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, and an MS in Industrial Archaeology from Michigan Technological University. My grad studies at Michigan Tech focused on the historical, archaeological, and anthropological study of industrial communities, with an emphasis on the material culture and heritage of industrialization from the 19th to the 20th century. My master’s thesis took me to the sugar mill company town of Central Aguirre, in Salinas, Puerto Rico, where I combined humanistic and ethnographic approaches to study and to interpret the everyday life of the community. This was the beginning of my lifelong interest in understanding and documenting the lives of working people. In this respect, joining the WHC team and making a contribution to the success of the Working Lives Project is a dream come true.
(Take a look at an article that Carmelo wrote, about the complexity of motherhood as work, for the Working Lives Project here.)
Hi, I’m Meg, the new Grant Program Director. I come to the council from UW-Madison, where I taught anthropology, folklore and communications for the last nine years while scratching “Ph.D.” off my bucket list. I’ve also worked as a writer, editor, water quality planner, grower, and if we dig far enough back, even a cook and bartender. I live with my son, who is a sophomore this fall at UW-Stevens Point, on a sad facsimile of a farm in Jefferson County. It was a working market garden and sheep and poultry operation before graduate school struck. It is now home to a variety of noxious weeds, geriatric barn cats, a dwindling flock of chickens and some very fat raccoons. I’m excited to come to the WHC and draw on the diverse threads of my background to help grantees create exciting projects that engage Wisconsin history and culture and explore ideas that matter.
(Read more about the ideas and inspiration Meg brings to our Grant Program here.)
Get to know the rest of the WHC staff! Learn a bit more about all of us at wisconsinhumanities.org/about-us/staff
This issue of On is part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
The WHC is celebrating the Pulitzer Prize Centennial with an handful of great projects. Read about them here!
For their generous support for the Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University.
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