“There are obviously two educations,” wrote John Truslow Adams, coiner of the phrase “the American dream.” “One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.”
Adams GRD 1900 was the first Eli to nab a Pulitzer, which he won for a historical tome called “The Founding of New England.” Earning his certificate and cash award in 1922, a mere half decade after the prizes’ inception, Adams would turn out to be the first in a long line of Elis to win the prize and to credit it, at least in part, to the lessons they learned at Yale, both about life and about making a living.
Bob Woodward ’65 and Thornton Wilder ’20. John Hersey ’36 and Wendy Wasserstein DRA ’76. Five winners of 21 categories in 2000 alone. In the past 80 years, at least one winner in every Letters, Drama & Music category, and at least one nominee in each of the Journalism categories. As many Pulitzers for Yale affiliates as for New York Times affiliates during the past six years.
Stanley Flink ’45W, a political science lecturer who teaches courses such as “Ethics and the Media,” attributed Yalies’ success in media professions to “the spirit of this place.”
“Yale has such a plethora of visitors and international figures that the whole world of public affairs becomes very appealing,” he said. “There is an ethos that produces a kind of curiosity about what is going on in the world.”
And as the Pulitzer Board — which, incidentally, includes three Yale graduates among the 19 jurors — prepares today to announce the winners and nominated finalists of the 2006 Pulitzer Prizes, it would be something of a break with tradition if none of the winners or three nominated finalists in any of the categories was not a Yale alum, professor or student.
Their stories run in parallel — what they got out of Yale: inspirational mentors; their advice for current Yalies: some variant on following your passion and ignoring the careerist pressures of Yale; and why they had so much success with the Pulitzer: a little bit of talent and a lot of luck — is approximately the same. But these three particular Yale affiliates and Pulitzer Prize winners and nominees — an architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune; a historian who was sidetracked on his way to becoming a lawyer; a law student who wrote short stories on the side — each imbibed something slightly different during their time on the Yale circuit.
Blair Kamin ARCH ’84, Pulitzer Prize winner, Criticism, 1999
In 1984, Blair Kamin ARCH ’84 was finishing up the two-year architectural research program, earning a Master’s in Environmental Design. The announcement came out that Paul Goldberger ’72 had won a Pulitzer for distinguished architecture criticism. Kamin purchased a bottle of champagne for his eminent professor.
“It was inspiring on many levels,” Kamin said. “To see a teacher win a Pulitzer, learning lessons directly from the New York Times’ architecture critic … both journalistically and critically, my time at Yale was wonderful.”
Now, Kamin said, he has more empathy for what comes in the aftermath of a Pulitzer. The key, he has learned, is to listen to one of the architectural greats, Frank Gehry, who, after winning the Pritzker Architecture Prize, said it would “allow him to do better work.”
“I know feature writers who can’t write a word after they win, because they think that every word has to be Pulitzer quality, so their fingers freeze,” Kamin said. “My first story afterward was hard, but you just keep going and get over it pretty fast.”
And the line “Pulitzer Prize-winning” in a biographical sketch or in an introduction, Kamin said, can open doors.
“Certain architects, for instance, might return your phone calls afterward, which is good for you and good for your readers, who, after all, are the ones paying 50 cents a day to read what you write,” Kamin said.
Kamin graduated from Amherst College in 1979 and moved to San Francisco to become an “office boy” for an architectural firm, manning the chemical reactions of their blueprint machine and performing other “unglamorous tasks” while his friends were becoming investment bankers in New York. Inspired by a Gothic architecture class he had taken as an undergraduate, though, Kamin stuck it out.
“Don’t worry about the money, don’t worry about the resume, don’t worry about impressing your friends,” Kamin said of his mantra.
At Yale, Kamin took classes from Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49, a legend of architectural criticism, and was lucky enough to freelance for the Hartford Courant, where he learned how to write authoritatively by covering the skyscrapers going up in the capital city. His stint at the Chicago Tribune, which has now lasted 14 years, has been good to him, he said, but he still credits his success to a bit of hard work and a lot of luck.
“Anyone who wins a prize of the Pulitzer’s magnitude should be modest enough to know that there’s a lot of luck involved,” Kamin said. “The stars have to align, but you can never get there unless you are really passionate. And, truly, that is the greatest reward, and it is better than any award that you can get.”
Joseph Ellis GRD ’69, Pulitzer Prize winner, History, 2001
“I’m going to be a historian,” Joseph Ellis GRD ’69 said in 1965, startled to hear the words come out of his mouth for the first time.
A senior philosophy major at the College of William and Mary and son of a law school graduate, Ellis had been telling people throughout his college career that he was going to law school. But that day, as he stepped into a rug store, of all places, with his fraternity brother to give their house a much-needed facelift, it turned out he had a new plan.
“I guess it had been kicking around in my subconscious for a while,” Ellis said.
The decision was partly because debt-averse Ellis was wary of the costs of law school, but also partly because of a pair of books he had read by two Yale professors who would wind up being his mentors — C. Vann Woodward, who wrote “The Burden of Southern History” and Edmund Morgan, who wrote “The Puritan Dilemma.”
“I thought, ‘I would like to write this stuff — that looks good to me,'” Ellis said. “This guy just asked me in a rug store one day, and that was that.”
When Ellis came to Yale in the mid 1960s, he said he was miserable.
“The girl I was in love with back in college had busted up with me, there were all these nerds at Yale, and there were guys all around me from Princeton and Johns Hopkins who had already published things,” Ellis said.
It was fellow southerner Woodward, an Arkansas native, who talked Ellis, a Virginian, into sticking around. A summer spent studying German and French flashcards during lifeguarding shifts — “while people drowned around me,” Ellis joked — a few years of reading a book a day and a dissertation later, Ellis said he felt he had learned something profoundly important about writing history.
“Historians have a commitment to the public as well as to fellow historians,” Ellis said. “What I imbibed at Yale was, it turns out, a minority position: the idea that I was supposed to write books that people could read.”
Thus was born Pulitzer Prize-winning “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation,” a character study of America’s founders in all their eccentricities and shades of gray. The book has sold two million copies to date.
Though his dissertation had focused on colonial history, what Ellis called “The Big Bang” in American history — “the place from which everything radiates out and continues to affect our lives” — was actually the American revolution.
“I thought, ‘This is a great story!'” Ellis said. “These guys who didn’t really know what they were doing — a jazz band, improvising as they went along — made this thing called a republic that had never existed before in this large an area or for this long. So I assembled a cast, rounded up the usual suspects and tried not to make them icons. None of them were perfect. Hell, if they were, why would we be interested?”
Today, Ellis is a professor at Mt. Holyoke University. Despite a much-publicized scandal over his exaggeration of his military career to a Boston Globe reporter, he continues to write and teach about American history.
Ellis said he recalls Morgan’s telling him to go down to the corner of Chapel Street and to point at someone at random, and he would have about as much luck at picking out a prime historian as he would have if he pointed at someone in one of Yale’s classrooms. There are some things, Ellis said, one can do to increase one’s chances — “be calm and serene, don’t isolate yourself, be a parent. That’ll teach you a hell of a lot.” But the Pulitzer, like most markers of distinction, is “arbitrary and capricious,” he said, and not even a degree from an elite institution can guarantee one.
“You’ve got to be good to be in the running, but you’ve got to be lucky to win,” Ellis said. “I have been hanging in there in such an old-fashioned way for so long that it just started to look newfangled.”
Adam Haslett LAW ’03, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Fiction, 2003
The year Adam Haslett LAW ’03 was named one of three finalists for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, he was a senior at Yale Law School and had taught two undergraduate seminars in public policy. What struck him most about Yale undergraduates, he said, was their perpetual paranoia about their careers, a somewhat stark contrast to the students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where he had spent two years before accepting his deferred law school admission and coming to Yale.
“To discover the deep match between your skills and talents and the rest of the world may require going in directions that aren’t laid out for you by Career Services,” Haslett said.
But to some extent, Haslett said he understands the insecurity. Though he has always had an intellectual interest in law and has used his legal expertise to further his writing career by penning nonfiction pieces on subjects such as gay marriage, his decision to attend law school was in part premised on the more societally acceptable, outwardly oriented nature of the legal profession.
Haslett began writing short stories during his sophomore year at Swarthmore College.
“I didn’t have much of an idea of what I was doing or why I was doing it,” Haslett said. “It was a way of saying something I couldn’t otherwise articulate.”
Haslett said he is glad he did not think of writing as a particularly professional discipline while in college, because it is easy to “distort your own voice or interests because of the state of the literary market.”
“The tail can start to wag the dog rather quickly,” Haslett said.
Haslett’s collection of short stories nominated for the Pulitzer, titled “You Are Not a Stranger Here,” is about the ravages of mental illness, the complexity of protectors and the protected and about seeking a way out. Haslett said he feels closest to “The Volunteer,” a fable about a nursing home inmate who has “spent a life warding something off,” as Haslett wrote in the story, perhaps simply because he wrote it last. It was a lifetime of accrued insight and emotion, rather than experiences at Yale and in New Haven, where he wrote his collection, that served as the foundation for his work, he said.
“There were specific problems and questions I was attempting to work out by telling stories about people who were in extreme internal states of isolation,” Haslett said.
Today, Haslett works as a consultant to “pay the rent” and is working on a novel, though he said he is not exactly sure what it will be about.
“Oh, boy,” Haslett said with a laugh. “Life in this world? Tough to say.”