History Prof Snags Nonfiction Pulitzer

Caroline M. Elkins is among 5 Harvard affiliates to win renowned prize this year

Harvard historian Caroline M. Elkins led a slew of Harvard professors, affiliates, and alumni who picked up Pulitzer Prizes and recognition from the Pulitzer Board yesterday. Elkins’ book, “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” won the Pulitzer—the nation’s most prominent award for journalism and letters—for General Non-Fiction.

“I’m simply overwhelmed,” Elkins, the Foster associate professor of African studies, said shortly after the Pulitzer Board made its announcements yesterday afternoon. “This is one of the most spectacular moments of my life.”

“Imperial Reckoning,” a record of Britain’s violent rule in Kenya during the 1950s, began as Elkins’ doctoral dissertation at Harvard.

“There are vestiges of the dissertation there,” Elkins said. She completed the book—her first—as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute during the 2003-2004 academic year.

Elkins, in her fifth year in the Harvard history department, does not have tenure, according to Andrew Gordon, chair of the department. Gordon noted that “it’s probably pretty rare” for a non-tenured professor to win an award of this caliber.

Geraldine Brooks, currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “March,” a novel that imagines a year in the life of the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s classic, “Little Women.”

Nicholas D. Kristof ’81 and Joseph F. Kahn ’87, both former Crimson editors and current writers for The New York Times, won prizes for Commentary and International Reporting, respectively. Playwright Christopher Durang ’71 was recognized as a nominated finalist in the Drama category. Durang will receive the Harvard Arts Medal in May.

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., chair of the African and African American studies department, chaired this year’s Pulitzer Board. Though Gates is on medical leave and could not be reached for comment, he told The Crimson last April that he was “deeply honored” to serve as chair and that he saw the appointment as a “great privilege and a great responsibility.”

Professor Jill Lepore, Elkins’ colleague in the history department, was also recognized by the Pulitzer Board as one of three nominated finalists in the History category.

“It’s a great honor and I’m thrilled,” Lepore said. “I’m interested in how ideas of the past change—what we know and what we forget.” Her work, “New York Burning,” which studies an 18th-century slave rebellion in New York City, is part of that tradition, Lepore said.

Reached in his office yesterday afternoon, Gordon expressed delight over his department’s Pulitzer laurels. “It’s all reflected glory for me,” Gordon said, “but I’m happy it happened when I was chair of the department.”

“We’ve doubled our active duty roster from one to two,” Gordon added, referring to the number of Pulitzer winners now in his department.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th anniversary University professor, whose “Midwife’s Tale” won a Pulitzer in 1991, expressed a similar sentiment.

“This is a wonderful day for the Harvard History Department and for two terrific colleagues,” Ulrich wrote in an e-mail. “I can tell you from experience that the competition is fierce and the decisions difficult.” Ulrich has served on several nominating committees since winning the Prize.

“Carrie Elkins and Jill Lepore are very young scholars with young children. They are an inspiration to everyone who aspires to a teaching and writing career!” Ulrich added.

Elkins described her experience teaching, writing, and raising children as “certainly difficult” and “a real juggling act, in many ways.” But she said that “having children has made me a better scholar and writer. I look at the world differently.”

That different perspective has benefited Elkins’ work as a professor, observed one of her advisees.

“I really admire Professor Elkins both for her position as a respected female Harvard faculty member and for her work as a pioneer in the fields of colonial violence and African human rights,” Lindsay E. Crouse ’06 wrote in an e-mail.

Told by a reporter to enjoy the next few days, Elkins responded, “Don’t worry. I will.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.