T.J. Stiles, who grew up in Foley, Minn., and graduated from Carleton College, has won his second Pulitzer Prize, this time for “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America,” a biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
He was joined on the Pulitzers list by two other Minnesotans: Sacramento Bee political cartoonist Jack Ohman, who got his start at the University of Minnesota Daily, and Associated Press reporter Robin McDowell, part of a team who won the public service award for a series about slave labor in the seafood industry.
Stiles won his first Pulitzer in 2010 for “The First Tycoon,” a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt that also won a National Book Award.
“I’m just totally, utterly flummoxed,” Stiles said by phone from his home in California. “I’m really, really happy, too. It’s like a total bolt from the blue. ... They don’t give out two [Pulitzers] almost ever”
When the director of promotions for Alfred A. Knopf called with the news, “I knew she wasn’t playing a prank,” he said, “but it was like — I just couldn’t absorb it. I went on the Twitter feed to confirm it. I needed something visual.”
Stiles acknowledged that there are a multitude of biographies of Custer already out there. “I have tremendous respect for all of the writing on Custer,” he said. “It ranges from great literary masters and great historians and biographers — Robert Utley, Paul Andrew Hutton, I could go on and on. Shirley Leckie Reed, who now lives in St. Paul, wrote a tremendous biographer of Libby Custer, Custer’s widow, and was enormously helpful.”
But with his book, Stiles said, he “tried to change the camera angle.” (Read the Star Tribune’s review here.)
“I tried to integrate the well-known aspects of Custer’s life — and there are many, most notably his role in the Indian wars — with lesser known elements of his career and his private life in way that hadn’t quite been done before,” he said. “One of the elements that’s really underplayed is the issue of race. Much of my portrait is about his engagement with race on a personal level, on a political level and on a professional level.”
In their comments, the Pulitzer judges said that Stiles’ book was “a rich and surprising new telling of the journey of the iconic American soldier whose death turns out not to have been the main point of his life.”
The Pulitzer board also moved the book from the biography category to the history category.
Stiles worked on the book off and on over six years, “but I probably lost a year or two just through speaking engagements and travel, which I have to say really helped to stabilize my income. None of my books have made the best-seller list. ‘The First Tycoon’ really made my career, but it didn’t put us on easy street.”
Stiles talked with the Star Tribune in 2009, when the Vanderbilt book came out.
The year his Custer manuscript was due, 2014, was intense, he said. “I was just cranking, working on finishing the book. My wife would take the kids on a trip to go see the family, and I would stay home and work.”
But the reward — a second Pulitzer — is “absolutely incredible,” he said. “I’m just speechless.”
Other locals on the short list
Ohman is the third Minnesota Daily alumnus in four years to win the Pulitzer for cartooning. Star Tribune editorial staffer Steve Sack — who was a finalist this year — won in 2013 while Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer was the 2014 winner.
Ohman, who grew up in Arden Hills, was signed to his first syndication contract while still a 19-year-old student at the U of M. He was a Pulitzer finalist in 2012.
Ohman told the Washington Post that winning the Pulitzer was “hallucinogenically fun.”
“I’m having a special uniform made with epaulets that say ‘Pulitzer’ across them.”
Click here to see the portfolio of 20 cartoons that won him the prize.
The Star Tribune team of Chris Serres, Glenn Howatt and David Joles was a finalist in the local reporting category for a series of stories about the warehousing of developmentally disabled people. And Minneapolis publisher Graywolf Press released one of the poetry finalists, “Four-Legged Girl” by Diane Seuss.
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302