By Kevin Douglas
Richard Powers (ΦBK, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) was the 2019 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. His bestselling novel Overstory was described by the Pulitzer announcement as “an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.” This may be Powers’ first Pulitzer, but the author has been a dominant figure in the literary world for decades.
Born in Evanston, Illinois in 1957, Powers grew up primarily in the U.S., but when he was eleven, his family moved to Bangkok, Thailand. They returned to the states when he was sixteen, but Powers said in a 2014 interview with Rain Taxi Review that the experience made him “a permanent outsider” back home. Powers further commented that this experience would contribute greatly to his future career aspirations: “early dislocation and relocation to the other side of the world was the first step in my becoming a writer.”
Powers attended the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne from 1975 to 1979. Surprisingly, his initial academic path was not in the arts and humanities – he studied physics before switching to the English department. He finished his Bachelor’s degree in 1978 and graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors. In 1979, he continued his studies at UIUC and completed his MA in literature. Even with two literary degrees under his belt, Powers was still drawn to science and technology. After completing his Master’s, he worked as a computer programmer and freelance data processor. He never wanted to be limited to a single specialization, which according to a 2008 biographical profile is why he did not pursue a doctorate in the humanities.
Overstory by Richard Powers (W.W. Norton, 2018)
It would not be long before Powers was pulled back to the arts. In 1985, his first novel was published. Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance introduced what would essentially become a trademark of his works: alternating narrative threads. The book was met with critical acclaim and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Three Farmers placed Powers on the map immediately, and future works piled on even more accolades and recognition: The Gold Bug Variations (1991) was TIME Magazine’s top Fiction book of the year; Operation Wandering Soul (1993) was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Galatea 2.2 (1995) was recognized by both TIME and the National Book Critics Circle Award as one of the standout novels of the year. It was The Echo Maker (2006) that won Powers his first major prize, the National Book Award for Fiction in 2006.
While achieving literary success over the last few decades, Powers also has been working as a professor. He was named the Swanlund Endowed Chair of English at UIUC in 1986 and is a professor emeritus of the university. In 2013, Powers joined the faculty at Stanford University as the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing.
Richard Powers’ life and career make him a model ΦBK scholar. The liberal arts and higher education have been a prominent part of his life, but he does not limit himself to the world of the humanities. His breadth of knowledge expands to the sciences, and in his work he often finds ways to marry the two disciplines – Galatea 2.2 is a pseudo-biographical novel that, according to a 2015 story in Slate magazine, meditates on the technological advances of Artificial Intelligence. It is this interdisciplinary focus that elevates Powers and his fiction to new and impressive heights.
Kevin Douglas is a senior at the University of Denver majoring in theater and English. The University of Denver is home to the Gamma of Colorado chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.