You have to admire an awards press release that reads simply, “The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2020 is awarded to the American poet Louise Glück ‘for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.’” And that’s it.
But I guess the Nobel Prize doesn't need to flaunt itself.
Currently a writer-in-residence at Yale University, Glück has won an impressive wealth of awards in her career to date. The Triumph of Achilles won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Faithful and Virtuous Night won the National Book Award, and The Wild Iris won the Pulitzer Prize. Gluck also served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2003-2004.
According to the Poetry Foundation’s website, “Glück’s early books feature personae grappling with the aftermaths of failed love affairs, disastrous family encounters, and existential despair, and her later work continues to explore the agony of the self.”
In Alfred Nobel’s will, which established the Nobel Prizes, Nobel stated that the Prize in Literature should be awarded to “the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” Nobel added, “It is my express wish that when awarding the prizes, no consideration be given to nationality, but that the prize be awarded to the worthiest person, whether or not they are Scandinavian.”
The Nobel Prizes had a rocky start. According to the Nobel Prize website, after Nobel’s will was read and the world discovered that he had left the bulk of his estate to create and fund the Nobel Prizes, “[h]is family opposed the establishment of the Nobel Prize, and the prize awarders he named refused to do what he had requested in his will. It was five years before the first Nobel Prize could be awarded in 1901.” The first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was French author Sully Prudhomme.
In 2018, the Nobel Prize in Literature was postponed due to scandal. An academy member’s husband was accused of sexual misconduct and convicted of rape; he was also accused of leaking prize winners’ names early so associates could profit from bets. The scandal sparked the subsequent departure of several board members. The 2018 award was given to Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk in 2019. In the same announcement, the 2019 award was given to Austrian author Peter Handke, which caused consternation among many, including PEN America, who said, “We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.” Handke had delivered a eulogy at the 2006 funeral of former Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was on trial for war crimes at the time of his death.
Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is, nonetheless, a tremendous accomplishment. Other recent winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature include Kazuo Ishiguro, Bob Dylan, Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, and Alice Munro. Until the announcement of the 2020 award, Toni Morrison was the last American woman to win the award, in 1993.
Many congratulations to Louise Glück.
This year, an American poet gains the prestigious award.