Cunningham, McPhee win arts Pulitzers

Prizes: "The Hours" wins for fiction, "Wit" wins for drama, and Duke Ellington is awarded a special citation.


NEW YORK -- Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux had a good day yesterday, winning two awards in the Pulitzer Prize arts categories: in fiction for "The Hours," a novel by Michael Cunningham, and non-fiction for "Annals of the Former World" by John McPhee.

"I think this is our best year by a long shot," said Farrar editor Jonathan Galassi.

"The Hours," Cunningham's third novel, is set in New York and tells a complex story based on Virginia Woolf's classic "Mrs. Dalloway."

"I hadn't expected to be celebrating," said Cunningham, who teaches creative writing at Columbia University. "My partner, Ken Korbett, is my mentor and muse and first and most important reader. He's a clinical psychologist, and he's with a patient right now, and when he's done, we'll have a good cry and figure out what to do next."

In other literary awards, the history prize was given to "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898" by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (unrelated to the television newsman). The biography prize went to "Lindbergh," A. Scott Berg's book about the aviator Charles Lindbergh, and the poetry prize was given to Mark Strand, a former U.S. poet laureate, for "Blizzard of One."

Margaret Edson, a kindergarten teacher, won the drama award for her play "Wit." The chronicle of the final hours of a college professor battling ovarian cancer was Edson's first play, written in 1991 when its author was 30. Edson once worked in a research hospital which deals with cancer and AIDS patients.

When reached yesterday at Atlanta's Centennial Park Elementary School, where she was cleaning her classroom, Edson said, "We're in the middle of studying insects and nothing can take me away. I will continue teaching. I enjoy it."

"Wit" is another demonstration of the decline of Broadway as the showplace for new American drama. Edson's play was born in the not-for-profit theater. The play had its world premiere in 1995 at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif. A second production opened two years later at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn.

Two music awards were given out, one to Melinda Wagner for her composition "Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion," and a special music citation to Duke Ellington on the centennial of his birth.

Ellington's music "evoked aesthetically the principles of democracy through the medium of jazz and thus made an indelible contribution to art and culture," said Seymour Topping, administrator of the Pulitzer prizes, which were awarded at Columbia University in New York.

Last year the qualifications for the music category were broadened to include jazz, and Topping said under the new guidelines Ellington, who died in 1974, could have won the 1965 Pulitzer for "Far Eastern Suite."

Overall, there were 799 entries in letters and 92 in music.

Arts Pulitzers:

Fiction: Michael Cunningham for "The Hours"

Drama: Margaret Edson for "Wit"

History: Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace for "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898"

Biography: A. Scott Berg for "Lindbergh"

Poetry: Mark Strand for "Blizzard of One"

General Non-fiction: John McPhee for "Annals of the Former World"

Music: Melinda Wagner for "Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion"

Special Citation: Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, commemorating the centennial of his birth and recognizing his "musical genius" in the medium of jazz Pub Date: 4/13/99

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