After 22 books and a career that has captured virtually every other major prize in literature, Philip Roth yesterday won his first Pulitzer for "American Pastoral," an ambitious tale about a family torn apart by the social upheavals of the '60s.
Paula Vogel, a former Marylander who looks to hurtful situations to create works that "feel like it's a healing," won the drama prize for "How I Learned to Drive," which grapples with issues of betrayal, guilt and incest.
And Charles Wright, an English professor who writes the better to understand life, won for his spiritual and personal poetry in "Black Zodiac."
These three artists -- and many of the other winners of 1998 Pulitzer Prizes for arts and letters -- have drawn upon emotions and fears deep within themselves to produce highly personal and powerful works. The prizes are awarded annually to writers and musicians whose achievements in American letters, drama and music represent the best works produced in the preceding year.
Fourteen journalism awards also are named.
Roth, 65, received his first Pulitzer for "American Pastoral" (Houghton Mifflin Company), a novel about family members whose lives are irrevocably changed by the social turmoil of the '60s. The 423-page book is considered by many critics an important departure for the novelist, whose body of work ranges from "Portnoy's Complaint" to a series of books about his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. ("American Pastoral" is, in fact, narrated by Zuckerman.)
"Indeed, this book boasts one of the most sensitively observed galleries of people to emerge from a Roth novel in years," wrote the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, herself a 1998 Pulitzer winner for criticism.
"It is his achievement in these pages that he has not only tackled and imaginatively harnessed such a daunting subject but has also used it to create a fiercely affecting work of art."
Playwright Vogel's work, "How I Learned to Drive," is both disturbing and moving. Set in Maryland, it tells of the obsessive love felt by an older man toward his young niece, whom he is teaching to drive. "I write plays to explore things that I may be scared of or may be hurting me. I like theater that makes me feel like it's a healing," the playwright said in a 1992 interview.
For the second year in a row, the Pulitzer board chose a first-person book for best biography: Katharine Graham's affecting "Personal History." Last year's selection was Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes."
A best seller, "Personal History" (Knopf) covered not only Graham's public life at the helm of the Washington Post, but her personal troubles as well, including her difficult marriage to Phil Graham, a manic-depressive who commited suicide.
Even before the Pulitzer, no one seemed more surprised by the success of her book than Graham, who is 80.
"It truly stuns me," she told The Sun last year, adding that she doesn't plan to write another.
The history prize went to a book on the Scopes monkey trial, Edward J. Larson's "Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion." Larson, a University of Georgia law professor, drew on some never-before-published archival material in his comprehensive dissection of the 1925 trial.
Along the way, he also debunked some of the "Inherit the Wind" mythology that has grown up around the trial, which was a signature subject of The Sun's H.L. Mencken.
The award for general nonfiction went to "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" (W.W. Norton & Co.) by Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Pulitzer Prize for music went to "String Quartet No. 2 (Musica Instrumentalis)" by Aaron Jay Kernis, which premiered Jan. 10 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City in a performance by the Lark Quartet.
The self-taught pianist, who first won national attention for a 1983 orchestral work, "Dream of the Morning Sky," is known for creating expressively lyrical works of elegant, textured instrumentation.
"What an incredible, incredible surprise to get this prize," Kernis said. "I couldn't be more delighted."
A special posthumous citation also was given to composer George Gershwin.
Wright, an English professor at the University of Virginia, won the poetry award for "Black Zodiac" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a powerful book of verse and his 10th published collection.
When asked how he might celebrate, the 63-year-old poet said: "I think I'm going to have sausage and polenta at the house tonight. Simple satisfactions suffice."
Wright has won many other prizes, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975, an Edgar Allan Poe award from the Academy of American Poets in 1976, and National Book Award in Poetry in 1983.
But fear, not prizes, has kept him writing, the Tennessee native said. "Fear of not succeeding at trying to do what I want to do, which was to understand: My life, the world around me, and how I relate to it. If you fail in that, there's nothing else going, is there?"
Pub Date: 4/15/98