UChicago scholar chairs jury for Pulitzer Prize for history

In Q&A, historian Amy Dru Stanley says of winner: ‘The book haunted me’

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced on April 16, with prizes given in journalism, letters, drama and music. UChicago scholar Amy Dru Stanley of the Department of History, the Law School and the College, had a unique vantage point to the selection process as the chair of the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for history.

Stanley shared her thoughts on serving on the jury and helping select the three finalists: Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein; Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross; and the eventual winner, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, by Jack E. Davis.

How does the process for selecting the Pulitzer in History begin?

A jury of three was appointed last spring: Allyson Hobbs, at Stanford; Fredrik Logevall, at Harvard; and I, as chair. Through the summer and late into the fall, we received boxes of books for a total of 141 entries, on topics ranging from colonialism to baseball, religion, international relations, disease, terror, housing, immigration, slavery, race, gender, disease and the environment. But military and political history predominated, as did works on the 20th century. There were as many entries by journalists as there were by academic historians. Our jury was rather mystified about the process by which the trade and academic presses determined which titles to submit to the Pulitzers.

We found it fairly simple to create a short list of about eight books. But it took many days of discussion to reach consensus in nominating the three finalists, along with naming one alternative title. We strove for unanimity, which involved a long process of rereading, deliberating and playing devil’s advocate.

The jury was not allowed to rank the finalists. We were also barred from revealing our service on the jury, until the Pulitzer Board’s announcement of the prizes. Finally, the Pulitzer process required us to recuse ourselves entirely from weighing in on books written by faculty members at our own universities or by friends in order to ensure impartiality in our judgments.

What is the criteria in selecting the finalists that are presented to the Pulitzer committee?

Every jury defines its own criteria; the Pulitzer Board did not instruct on this. We differed about what makes a Pulitzer book. Of course, it must be original, challenging us to think in new ways and firmly based on extensive research. But we had to overcome disagreements about the attributes we most valued. One of us stressed craft—the deftness of the narrative and the quality of the prose—and the scale of the work. Another focused on storytelling that makes lived experience vivid and reveals the agency of everyday actors. For me, the significance of the subject and the power of the analysis were paramount.

Something we also disagreed on was whether a serious mistake of fact was per se disqualifying; I thought it should be.

In the end, we looked for books with the virtues of being revelatory, risk-taking and eloquent—as well as accurate.

Throughout, we were acutely aware that the Pulitzer brings works of history to a broad public, making our judgments a sort of public trust. We would be defining the history that matters, shaping collective memory. It fell to us to say what is worth knowing about the past and how history today is best written. One thing we looked for were books that speak to pressing concerns of the present.

What struck you most about this year’s three finalists? And what set the winner, The Gulf, apart?

Our jury nominated three books that are powerful in distinct ways but all with profound relevance for the present. The Gulf illuminates ravages to the natural environment created by profit-maximizing economic activity. Fear City reveals the struggles of everyday urban life evoked by fiscal austerity and neoliberal policymaking. Hitler in Los Angeles lays bare the resistance to fascism mounted by citizens when government institutions failed, shedding new light on indigenous illiberalism, imported Nazism and underground resistance. Each holds lessons for the current moment.

We especially admired The Gulf for fusing originality, erudition and literary skill. The book explores the history of human destruction of the natural world. It tells of fish, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, the Earth’s tenth-largest body of water. But it also tells of the oil industry and real estate development, and of polluted waters, and of dams, jetties, seawalls and levees that hasten erosion. The writing is both lyrical and limpid. The author, Jack Davis, enables us to see and feel and understand the fragile wonders of the Gulf. The book haunted me.

The Pulitzer Board’s selection of The Gulf is a tocsin, telling the public of a work of history that counters denial of environmental destruction as fake science.