Prof. Greenblatt Wins 2012 Pulitzer Prize

University Professor Stephen J. Greenblatt was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction on Monday for his book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.”

Greenblatt’s work traces the ideas explored by Roman philosopher Lucretius in his epic poem “On the Nature of Things.” Greenblatt said the work is “the only major surviving philosophical exposition of the theory that the world was made out of atoms.” After being forgotten for centuries, the poem was rediscovered in 1417. In “The Swerve,” Greenblatt argues that its discovery transformed the fields of academia, art, religion, and philosophy forever.

The Pulitzer board described Greenblatt’s book in its citation as “a provocative book arguing that an obscure work of philosophy, discovered nearly 600 years ago, changed the course of history by anticipating the science and sensibilities of today.”

Greenblatt was inspired to write “The Swerve” after stumbling upon a copy of Lucretius’s work in a bin of used books during his undergraduate years at Yale. He purchased the poem for 10 cents, drawn to it, he said, by the cover rather than by the content.

When he actually read the poem that summer, he was intrigued. He would return to it many years later when writing his award-winning book.

Greenblatt said winning the Pulitzer Prize filled him with “astonishment and wonder.” He said he found out Monday—the day the 2012 Pulitzer winners were announced—after receiving a call from an AP photographer who wanted to take his photo.

“I didn’t know I was even being considered,” Greenblatt said.

“The Swerve” previously won the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Pulitzer Prizes are awarded annually in 21 categories for success in the areas of journalism, literature, and musical composition. Each prize is accompanied by a cash award of $10,000.

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at hrouse@college.harvard.edu.

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