Brent Staples, AM’76, PhD’82, wins Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing

Alum earns praise for ‘extraordinary moral clarity’ of work at The New York Times

Brent Staples, AM’76, PhD’82, has won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for his work on the editorial board of The New York Times. The prize was announced April 15.

Exploring the legacy of slavery and racism, Staples has written about everything from Sally Hemings’ place in the history of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson, to the meaning of Confederate monuments, to the Afrofuturism behind Black Panther. The Pulitzer committee praised the “extraordinary moral clarity” of his work, which “charted the racial fault lines in the United States at a polarizing moment in the nation’s history.”

Staples arrived at the University of Chicago in 1973 to study psychology, eventually writing his doctoral dissertation about the mathematics of decision-making. Among his influences were the late UChicago faculty members Hillel Einhorn, who served as his adviser; and Saul Bellow, X’39, who was a prominent figure on campus when Staples was a student.

In Staples’ award-winning memoir Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White, he described Bellow as “an alchemist. He could make the folds in a bald man’s head seem like a window on the soul.” Bellow was a longtime member of the University faculty, winning both the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976 when Staples was a graduate student.

The University of Chicago Magazine interviewed Staples in 1994 when, at 42 years old, he was the youngest writer on the Times’ editorial board.

“I’m eternally grateful for the education that I got—that I was lucky to get,” Staples said then. “It’s a real centering in a world that, intellectually, is blowing apart. People read less and write less, and the ability to analyze any problem in the context of serious ideas that have stood some test of time is becoming the province of the elite few.

“There aren’t many people who do what I do—who, when they sit down to write an editorial, have Homer, Virgil, Plato and Edmund Husserl to call upon. So believe me, I knock on wood. I’m blessed.”

UChicago alumni have now won Pulitzer Prizes in each of the past three years. Martyna Majok, AB’07, was honored for drama in 2018; and Tyehimba Jess, AB’91, won for poetry in 2017.