By Paul Kiefer
The Phi Beta Kappa Society is pleased to recognize two of its members among the Pulitzer Prize winners for 2020 – Benjamin Moser and Greg Grandin.
ΦBK, Brown University
Pulitzer Prize for Biography
The Pulitzer Board awarded the 2020 Prize for Biography to Benjamin Moser, a Houston-born author, editor, and translator, for his profile of the prolific American essayist, novelist, and critic Susan Sontag. The late writer’s son approached Moser in 2013 to write Sontag’s biography; the offer came after Moser gained some attention as a talented biographer for Why This World, a profile of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector that won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009.
Members of the Pulitzer Board praised Moser’s writing in Sontag: Her Life and Work as imbued with “pathos and grace that captures the writer’s genius and humanity alongside her addictions, sexual ambiguities, and volatile enthusiasms.” The biography recounts the winding path that brought Sontag to Cuba during the first battles of the revolution in 1959, to reunification-era Berlin, and to Sarajevo during the four-year siege by Serbian nationalist forces.
Sontag, herself a member of Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago, rose to prominence as a powerhouse of feminist fiction and nonfiction, as a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam, and for her critiques of American popular and intellectual culture. But she was also criticized by other writers and social critics for her rhetorical rejection of capitalism and elitism while living luxuriously and embracing her status as a lauded intellectual. Sontag died in 2004 at age 71.
Moser relied on hundreds of interviews and Sontag’s personal archives to guide him through the years-long research and writing process, as well as on conversations with Sontag’s closest companions and collaborators. Sontag was published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2019.
ΦBK, Brooklyn College
Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction
The Pulitzer Board awarded the 2020 Prize for General Nonfiction to historian Greg Grandin for The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, a sweeping exploration of the cultural and political significance of the frontier in the American psyche. Grandin, currently a professor of history at Yale University, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Brooklyn College.
Grandin has since written extensively on Latin American politics and U.S. foreign policy as both an author and a contributor to The Nation, The New York Times, and Harpers, at times assuming the role of a foreign correspondent, including during a 2009 coup in Honduras.
In the view of the Pulitzer Board, The End of the Myth’s interrogation of the American fixation on “boundless expansion” is particularly valuable for understanding contemporary U.S. border policy, the American military presence in the Middle East, and the rise of “reactionary populism and racist nationalism” both caused by and contributing to the “end of American exceptionalism.” Grandin writes that the nation’s long history of expansion, both through military campaigns and incursions into new markets, were pressure valves for domestic conflicts; after the economic turmoil of 2008 and decades of unwinnable war in the Middle East, Grandin posits that Americans are finally confronting the enduring racial and economic inequalities in their own society, for better or for worse.
The End of the Myth was published in 2019 by Metropolitan Books.
Paul Kiefer earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College, where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. Pomona College is home to the Gamma of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.