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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


Pulitzer Times Two

When the 2002 Pulitzer Prizes were announced in April, two Pomona College graduates were among the 21 recipients.

Just before noon, reporter Barry Siegel ’71 headed to the L.A. Times’ main newsroom on the third floor. “Reporters being reporters,” he explains, word had leaked a few weeks before that he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in the feature-writing category.

“Most of the news staff was gathered there, waiting for the Pulitzer announcements, which come to us as wire service stories on our computer screens. We gathered in a great circle around one of our desk editors, who sat at a computer, watching for the Pulitzer wire service stories. Right at noon, L.A. time, they began to show up on her monitor in increments, individual stories reporting each category’s winner as they were announced in New York. The desk editor called out each winner as they came across her screen. Finally they got to the feature category—it was about two-thirds down the list of categories—and the desk editor called out, ‘In the feature category, Barry Siegel of the Los Angeles Times.’ It was a great moment. The L.A. Times had another Pulitzer winner in editorial writing, so there was a lot of cheering and cameras going off. Then it was back to work.”

For Pomona’s other Pulitzer winner of 2002, however, Louis Menand ’73, there was no such moment of drama—not even any advance notice that his book, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001), was being considered for the Pulitzer in U.S. history. For Menand, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the news came in the form of a message from Western Union followed by a call from an Associated Press reporter.

The two writers join an elite company of Pulitzer winners that also includes Bill Keller ’70 of The New York Times, who won a Pulitzer in the International Reporting category in 1989 for his coverage of the fall of communism in the Soviet Union.

“The nicest part of winning a Pulitzer,” notes Menand, “is that you hear from almost everyone you ever met. Everyone was so nice and enthusiastic about it—both people I work with every day, and people I haven’t seen in 20 years or more.”

The Metaphysical Club has been touted as a masterwork in American intellectual history. Beginning with the Civil War and ending with the 1919 Supreme Court decision considered today to be the basis for the modern legal interpretation of free speech, it is mainly the story of the ideas that shaped our nation and its modern intellectual traditions, told through the lives of four of the most important thinkers of that period—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the dominant legal thinker of his time; William James, the father of modern psychology in America; Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist and founder of semiotics; and philosopher John Dewey, student of Peirce, friend and ally of James, and admirer of Holmes.

Menand is the author of one previously published book, Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) and the editor or co-editor of four other published volumes.

Siegel received his Pulitzer for a haunting portrait of a tortured father on trial for negligence in the accidental death of his son and of the judge who anguished over the case and its aftershocks. The story, “A Father’s Pain, a Judge’s Duty, and a Justice Beyond Their Reach: A child’s fate entwined the lives of two good men haunted by their choices,” was published in the Los Angeles Times on December 30. Siegel told the story mainly through the eyes of Summit County, Utah Judge Robert Hilder, who struggled with the decision to convict the father and then anguished further after the convicted man took his own life.

Siegel, who has worked for the Times since 1976, writes primarily magazine-length features focusing on people struggling with moral and ethical issues. A collection of his stories for the Times was published in a book titled Shades of Gray: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstance. He is also the author of two nonfiction books and two novels, Actual Innocence (2001) and Perfect Witness (1999).

In addition to the recognition, recipients of the Pulitzer Prize are invited to an awards luncheon at Columbia University, where they receive a framed certificate, a specially engraved Tiffany glass paperweight, and a check for $7,500.

“I felt,” says Siegel, “as you might imagine—terrific and overwhelmed. I also felt very honored, thankful for having my work recognized, and more than a little grateful for all the help I’d received from L.A. Times editors. If anything, my feelings have only deepened with time. It was hard to absorb it all at the start. Only now, with life returning to a normal keel, has it really sunk in that I won the Pulitzer.”

—Cynthia Peters