Dayton Literary Peace Prize

2008 Lifetime Achievement Award

Taylor Branch

“It is not through learning and analyzing ideas that we learn about race and history. It is from stories.”

— Taylor Branch                        

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Taylor Branch, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy America in the King Years is widely considered the definitive history of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, will accept the special Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Lifetime Achievement at a ceremony in Dayton, Ohio on September 28, 2008. Previous Lifetime Achievement honorees include authors Studs Terkel and Elie Wiesel.

Branch has won nearly every major American literary award for his acclaimed trilogy America in the King Years, an epic history of the civil rights era spanning Martin Luther King, Jr.’s political beginnings in 1954 through his assassination in 1968. The trilogy includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters (1988), which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Pillar of Fire (1998); and At Canaan’s Edge (2006).

“Through his extraordinary work, Taylor Branch has reminded us all that Dr. King’s legacy to humankind was not just his leadership on civil rights, but his commitment to the power of nonviolence,” said Sharon Rab, chair of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Committee. “On the fortieth anniversary of King’s death, we could not think of an author more deserving of this honor.”

“I am honored to be recognized by the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in the cause of peace, and humbled to be mentioned in the company of Studs Terkel and Elie Wiesel” said Branch.

Read the full press release

Taylor Branch with Dayton Literary Peace Prize


It was the deaths of two garbage collectors crushed by a municipal truck that launched the strike that drew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis. As tornadoes and thunderstorms circled the city, King delivered the speech that became his epitaph. “I may not get there with you,” he told the crowd in the Mason Temple as the wind howled, “but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

At suppertime the next day, as he got ready for a march to support sanitation workers’ demands for better conditions, King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. An hour later, at 7:05 p.m. on April 4, 1968, he was pronounced dead. Riots convulsed more than 60 cities across the country.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch writes in his new book, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68,” which goes on sale today, America was at a boiling point. The war in Vietnam was foundering. Antiwar sentiment was spreading. The civil-rights struggle was taking aim at the last vestiges of American feudalism, challenging segregation and the kind of institutionalized racism that fueled an FBI smear campaign against King.

“Race was, and is, still scary to a lot of people,” says Branch by phone from his Baltimore home, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day. King’s enemies “knew that he spoke to a lot of people, and a lot of people agreed with him. He was mesmerizing, because of the timbre of his voice and his words. His voice was like a furnace of optimism, trying to triumph over despair. He defined something that was strong enough to offer hope in the face of suffering.

“He was living in a time when people got lynched for almost nothing, and there was no expectation there was going to be justice. Black people were largely invisible. To be a symbol of that hope over despair is an amazing thing.”

The book is the last in Branch’s trilogy on the King period. He originally set out to write just one, “Parting the Waters,” which became a bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize after its publication in 1988. He published “Pillar of Fire” 10 years later. By now, the snowy-haired author, who turned 59 on Saturday, has devoted much of his life to the three biblical volumes on King.

“I think people will look back on the civil-rights movement and refer to the trilogy of Taylor Branch’s work as the definitive historical scholarship on the period,” says Clarence Jones, 75, King’s onetime attorney. “Taylor wasn’t there. He was an outsider, a white Southerner. He never spoke to Mr. King. Here’s this white Southern man gathering this meticulous scholarship, and you know what? He got it right.”

Branch grew up in King’s hometown, Atlanta, in an era of rigid segregation. Its ugly meaning hit home when he was 16, when he watched television coverage of peaceful civil rights protests as police in Birmingham, Ala., turned dogs and fire hoses on children.

Branch didn’t engage in civil-rights efforts until, as a graduate student at Princeton in 1969, he spent a summer working for Atlanta’s Voter Education Project, scouting rural Georgia counties where black people had been excluded from voting, trying to find black activists willing to work to reverse the disenfranchisement.

He visited black churches and played poker in a black juke joint (a local sheriff briefly jailed him for being on the wrong side of the tracks), but everyone was terrified. Finally, Branch met some black women picking cotton. One, a respected matriarch and midwife, volunteered. By the end of the summer, three midwives were on board, and two of them would one day be elected commissioners in their counties.

Branch kept a written account of his summer, and a professor showed part of it to the editor of the Washington Monthly. The magazine ran three excerpts, and Branch found himself with a budding career as a writer.

Branch ghost-wrote John Dean’s Watergate-driven autobiography and co-wrote a book — a basketball memoir with NBA legend Bill Russell — before returning to the civil-rights era for his trilogy.

Branch was not a witness, so he relied partly on oral history. For “At Canaan’s Edge,” he also listened to tapes of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s telephone calls. He conducted countless interviews for stories, fueled by Southern storytelling that reenacted such milestones as King’s 1965 Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery, a demonstration of moral force that helped pave the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The storytelling breathes life into lesser-known dramas in such backwaters as Lowndes County in Alabama, then best known for bloodletting by the Ku Klux Klan. There, determined women in faded cotton dresses helped a deacon found a political party known by a black panther symbol, which they had borrowed from a local high school team — a name Branch said would be co-opted by black militants.

Cartoons and smears

The America that emerges from Branch’s pages is on the razor’s edge of history, and it could be cutting and ugly. King’s demands for racial equality were met in Southern newspapers with grotesque cartoons whose smiling minstrels were the face of virulent hatred.

FBI agents slink around “At Canaan’s Edge” like goons in a noir novel, spreading lies in a relentlessly hostile campaign to discredit him on every conceivable level, a far cry from the frequent Hollywood portrayals of civil-rights-era agents as white knights doing battle against an anonymous black backdrop.

One of the more dubious FBI smears was an attempt to portray him as an associate of Muhammad Ali. An FBI agent timidly pointed out the obvious: The plan might backfire because many people regarded the boxer as a folk hero. But his supervisors went ahead with the plan.

FBI agents wiretapped King’s hotel room and phone conversations for years to record information about his infidelities, which they unsuccessfully tried to disseminate in the press. Branch says the FBI even tried to dissuade King from traveling to Oslo, Norway, to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize by blackmailing him for his personal life. In Branch’s eyes, the FBI was “blackmailing him toward suicide.”

Branch says he heard secondhand that some of the Kings were disturbed by his accounts of King’s infidelities, but he says the affairs were too central to the attempts to undermine the movement to omit them. (King family members, currently involved in a crisis over the future of the King Center in Atlanta, declined to comment.)

“Martin King’s indiscretions are part of the reality of the person that he was. It’s relevant, certainly,” says Jones, who is preparing his own memoir, based partly on FBI transcripts of his phones calls with King. “A hero’s journey can still be heroic, even if the hero has considerable flaws. Martin never represented that he was perfect. He told me, ‘The last perfect person I’m aware of walked on water, had a last supper with close friends, was betrayed by one of them and got crucified.’”

A couple of months after King’s assassination, an escaped convict accused of the crime, James Earl Ray, was arrested, and he died in prison in 1998. King would have been 77 on Sunday. But in Branch’s mind, the civil rights movement lived on, and not just in the creation of a visible black middle class or a “de-stigmatized white South.” Branch credits the movement with deepening democratization, providing momentum for the budding antiwar and women’s movements, and “making gay rights imaginable.”

“King was writ large,” Branch says. “He’s echoing Jefferson and Lincoln as well as Isaiah and Jeremiah. He speaks on the shoulders of the prophets and the patriots alike. We don’t hear that kind of language now, and if we did I think it would make us all better citizens.”

-Anne-Marie O’Connor, Times Staff Writer
“A life lived on the trail of King” January 16, 2006


Book Excerpt 


Over the opposition of his staff, King reached out to leaders of other ethnic groups to enlist them in the Poor People’s Campaign

KING MET WITH 78 “NONBLACK” MINORITY LEADERS ON Thursday, March 14, for an anxious summit closed to reporters. Mostly unknown to each other, let alone to King, they ventured by invitation from across the U.S. to Paschal’s Motor Lodge in the heart of black Atlanta. Wallace (Mad Bear) Anderson spoke for a poor Iroquois confederation of upstate New York. A deputy came from the bedside of Cesar Chavez, who had barely survived a 25-day fast in penance for violent lapses by striking California farmworkers. Tillie Walker and Rose Crow Flies High represented Plains tribes from North Dakota, while Dennis Banks led a delegation of Anishinabes. During introductions, King aide Bernard Lafayette whispered to King what he had gleaned about basic differences among Puerto Ricans as distinct from Mexicans (Chicanos), or the defining cause of the Assiniboine/Lakota leader Hank Adams, who spearheaded a drive for Northwestern salmon-fishing rights. Lafayette had checked repeatedly to make sure King wanted the hardscrabble white groups to be included, and the answer was always simple: “Are they poor?” The motor lodge’s meeting room was dotted with coal miners, some of whom braved fierce criticism from Appalachian rivals, and one white participant, Peggy Terry, admitted being raised in a Kentucky Klan family. After moving to Montgomery during the bus boycott, she had gone once on a lark to see “that smart aleck nigger come out of jail,” and the actual sight of King buffeted by a mob had angered her. Now Terry kept a few black friends in the Jobs Or Income Now group from uptown Chicago’s poor white district, and she wowed movement crowds by asking where else a hillbilly housewife could trade ideas or jail cells with a Nobel prizewinner.

Black sanitation workers in Memphis were in the 10th day of a strike when supporters, including SCLC member James Lawson, staged a march. After police charged the crowd with truncheons and cans of Mace, Lawson appealed for King to come.

IT TOOK A FLYING WEDGE OF PREACHERS AND SANITATION WORKERS to guide King’s party into the cavernous Mason Temple through crowded aisles and a pulsing crescendo of cheers. Against all fire codes, some spectators climbed high into rafters from which was suspended a giant white banner with a Bible quote from Zechariah: NOT BY MIGHT, NOR BY POWER, SAITH THE LORD OF HOSTS, BUT BY MY SPIRIT. The platform below teemed with dignitaries plus three stately new garbage cans filled with donations. When King in his blue suit reached the bank of microphones, the noise receded no lower than a constant hum, and applause erupted again each time he paid tribute to their unity and purpose. “You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor,” he said.

They clapped when he asked if they knew most poor people worked every day, and even cheered most sentences of his exegesis on the parable of Lazarus. “You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor,” King cried. Energy in the hall brimmed so close to the surface that he backed off to summarize the previous decade. “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” he resumed. There was no need to build or persuade by the rules of oratory, as a feeder line in rhythm easily rekindled the crowd. “We are tired,” said King. “We are tired of being at the bottom. [“Yes!”] We are tired … We are tired of our men being emasculated so that our wives and our daughters have to go out and work in the white lady’s kitchen.” He used old riffs and improvised new ones on staying together and the nature of power. “Power is the ability to achieve purpose,” said King, to applause. “Power is the ability to effect change … and I want you to stick it out so that you will be able to make Mayor Henry Loeb and others say ‘Yes’ even when they want to say ‘No.’” He paused through the next ovations with a quizzical look.

“Now you know what?” he asked. “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit.” His conversational tone for once hushed the crowd. “If they keep refusing, and they will not recognize the union,” said King, “I tell you what you ought to do. And you are together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”

This time cheers rose into sustained, foot-stomping bedlam, which drowned out further words, and King stepped back into the embrace of colleagues already in furious consultation. With Lawson, Andrew Young passed King a note that perhaps he could swing back through Memphis. Temporarily at least, the rejuvenating clamor made the garbage strike seem the heart of a poverty movement instead of a foolish diversion from the march planned for Washington.

Ten days later, King returned to Memphis to participate in another march, but what unfolded not only set back the nonviolence campaign but also set him on the path to his tragic fate.

2008 Fiction Winner

Junot Díaz - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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“Those of us who have lived without peace know of its elemental importance and yet how few cultures and institutions and organizations honor or recognize or promote this essential and elusive human practice. On many levels this award honors what is best in us as a people and is a testament to the forward-looking humanity of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. It is a tremendous honor for me and the communities that made me possible.”

— Junot Díaz                        


Born in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, and raised there and in New Jersey, Junot Díaz graduated from Rutgers and received an MFA from Cornell. He lives in New York City and Boston, and is a tenured professor at MIT.

His first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. The novel also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Fiction of 2007, the Mercantile Library Center’s John Sargent Prize for First Novel in 2007, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was also a New York Times Notable Book of 2007 and Time magazine’s Book of the Year.

Junot Díaz has had his fiction published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and four times in The Best American Short Stories. His critically praised, bestselling debut book, Drown, led to his inclusion among Newsweek’s “New Faces of 1996” – the only writer in the group. The New Yorker placed him on a list of the twenty top writers for the twenty-first century. Díaz has won the Eugene McDermott Award, the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellowship, a U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship from the NEA, and most recently the Rome Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Junot Díaz with Dayton Literary Peace Prize


Que calidad! Junot Díaz’s masterpiece churns and flows with an onrush and a stupendous range of voice, from street-wise to spine-shockingly tender, as it hits every possible note—high, low, and in-between—and zings in historical footnotes about the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo (often combatively, amusingly sardonic) that take root and bloom straight into the book’s center. The prose sings with manic energy and brilliant, wild asides and explodes with a steady beat of Spanglish as it presents garden-variety inhumanity—the taunts that the nerdy Oscar suffers in his hapless quest for anything resembling a stolen moment—and the farthest reaches of nightmare as the Cabral family gets thrown, full-force or tangentially, against the “Trujillato” legacy. Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard, was tortured and imprisoned, ostensibly for one joke about the dictator, and Abelard’s daughter, Belicia, is dogged all the way to her new life in New Jersey by her own refusal to submit to oppression.

Yunior, our narrator and the often-wayward lover of Oscar’s sister, Lola, swerves from laugh-out-loud humor to a beauty in the finale that’s among the most moving (and unexpected) you’ll hope to read. A defiance about love marked Belicia so heavily with history that she’s weighted-down and ferocious. Oscar is no heroic crusader, and if there’s any call to combat history, it lurks far below the surface of his bumbling, earnest, sci-fi obsessed daily life. And yet it is Oscar, in the end, who combats terror, trumps it, with love; it is Oscar who makes a mad, sacrificial-lamb case for the supremacy of zafa (redemptive luck) over fukú (curse, especially in his family) by the simple act of being himself, by caring more about a person than about the past. His courage, fuelled by stubborn, immovable yearning, might just break history’s stranglehold.

— Katherine Vaz
2008 finalist judge


Book Excerpt

For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits, an experience from which he supposed he should have emerged a better person, but that’s not really what happened—and if there were any lessons to be gleaned from the ordeal of those years he never quite figured out what they were. He walked into school every day like the fat lonely nerdy kid he was, and all he could think about was the day of his manumission, when he would at last be set free from its unending horror. Hey, Oscar, are there faggots on Mars?—Hey, Kazoo, catch this. The first time he heard the term moronic inferno he knew exactly where it was located and who were its inhabitants.”

2008 Fiction Runner-up

Daniel Alarcón - Lost City Radio

“It’s a real honor just to be considered for an award like this, one with such an important mission. And to be mentioned among this distinguished group of nominees is even more exciting. My congratulations go to the winners, and my thanks to the judges.”

— Daniel Alarcón              

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Daniel Alarcón was born in Lima, Peru and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. After graduating from Columbia University, he worked for two years in New York City public schools, as a counselor and a teacher. He earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and elsewhere, and anthologized in Best American Non-Required Reading 2004 and 2005. His non-fiction has appeared in Salon and Eyeshot, and he is Associate Editor of the Lima-based magazine Etiqueta Negra.

A former Fulbright Scholar to Peru and the recipient of a Whiting Award for 2004, he lives in Oakland, California, where he is the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College. Daniel is the author of the acclaimed short story collection War By Candlelight. Lost City Radio is his first novel.


Book Excerpt

Consider the improbablilty of it: that the multiple complaints of a people could somehow coalesce and find expression in an act—in any act—of violence. What does a car bomb say about poverty, or the execution of a rural mayor explain about disenfranchisement?

And later:

Which grievance was it and when?… Someone was angry about something. This someone convinced many hundreds and then many thousands more that their collective anger meant something.” It is a country of people who, ultimately, “don’t look for their missing, they ARE the missing.”


In an unnamed South American country, a woman on the radio reads the names of the disappeared and the lost. Hers is a voice of quiet but implacable defiance; it is calibrated to meet the surge of hope in impossible circumstance. Soon, her husband is one of the lost, and a young boy sent from the jungle to meet her brings news of more than war. This is the beginning of an eloquent novel in which the real and unreal intersect as easily as past and present. Daniel Alarcon has created a memorable contribution to the refusal to glamorize war, even when it is in a “good cause.”

Alarcon’s insistence on removing “cause” from violence carries a striking message, a brave message , one promoted by Norma — the voice of Lost City Radio – when she takes in the young boy and opens her life to him, thereby enacting a huge gesture of forgiveness…

The lasting impact of this novel comes, in part, from using gorgeous language to describe cruel acts, and describing tender human acts in almost reportorial prose. The contrasts highlight the extremes of behavior, the private mourning of public loss, in a country soiled by war and lies.

— Amy Hempel
2008 finalist judge

2008 Nonfiction Winner

Edwidge Danticat - Brother, I'm Dying

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“I am honored and humbled to have been awarded The Dayton Literary Peace Prize in nonfiction for my memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, a book which deals with not only my own family history, but with the devastating consequences of xenophobia and anti-immigrant acts. Many of us have turned to literature in difficult times and have found comfort and greater understanding there. I hope my work and that of my fellow finalists and winners will continue to help contribute to that conversation.”

— Edwidge Danticat


Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Rose and André Danticat. André immigrated to New York when Edwidge was two; two years later her mother followed. Edwidge and her younger brother were raised by their aunt and uncle for the next eight years. When she was twelve years old she left Haiti and moved to Brooklyn, New York, to join her parents.

She is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak! (1996), a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones (1998), an American Book Award winner; The Dew Breaker (2004), a PEN/Faulkner and National Book Critics Circle finalist and winner of the first Story Prize; and most recently, Brother, I’m Dying (2007), a memoir that won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of two children’s books, and the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Diaspora in the United States and The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Men and Women of All Colors and Cultures.

Edwidge Danticat with Dayton Literary Peace Prize


Brother I’m Dying is memoir at its very best. Edwidge Danticat writes in spare, elegant prose about the legacy of Haiti’s violent history and how it shaped her family. While the political and personal must be inextricable in any deeply examined life, Danticat’s childhood was so radically shaped by political context, it’s impossible to know who she would be had she not experienced her family’s response to Duvalier and his secret police, the machete-wielding Tonton Macoutes. Danticat’s parents leave Haiti for New York in the early 1970’s; her uncle and aunt raise her for nine years in a vividly recalled pink house in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood caught in the crossfire between rival political factions and gangs.

But this book, despite its evocation of a childhood marked by exile and violence, is finally a love story. The pink house in Haiti is alive with brave and intimately connected characters, and children who learn both sides of the emotional costs of diaspora. We see the exquisitely revealed and restrained emotional pain of the exile in Danticat’s parents, and the tremendous faith and loyalty to community embodied in Danticat’s Uncle Joseph, who, in the midst of terrible political strife, builds a church in Bel Air and becomes a preacher. Danticat’s tribute to family, especially to her father as he dies, and to her Uncle Joseph, who along with his wife raises her for the years when her parents are in the United States, is a profound testament to the durable power of grace and love in family relationships. Suffering in Danticat gives rise not to bitterness, but to a profound appreciation for the remarkable people who nurtured her against the odds.

The book is also an indictment of the abuse of power in Haiti, and in North America. Tragically, after Joseph leaves Haiti when his church is finally burned and looted in 2004, his escape to The United States becomes a nightmare. He asks for asylum, but instead is put into detention by U.S. officials. In the detention center he grows ill, and soon dies in a nearby hospital. This was a remarkably brave-spirited 81-year-old minister who risked his life to help people in a country shredded by violence, who becomes an emblematic figure at the end, a wrenching testament to the terrible abuse wrought by the U.S. government under the guise of homeland security. At the same time, he remains a beloved, irreplaceable, heroic uncle to the writer.

Reading this book can re-inscribe in us our own capacity for love and loyalty to one another, no matter how dark the circumstances of our lives become. Danticat writes with a beautiful understatement, certain only, as Keats wrote, of “the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.”

– Jane McCafferty
2008 finalist judges


Book Excerpt

Fifteen minutes had passed since my uncle first started vomiting.  A registered nurse and medic finally arrived.  By then my uncle looked “almost comatose,” Pratt recalled.  “He seemed somewhat unconscious and couldn’t move.”

Pratt told the medic and nurse that right before he became sick, my uncle had told him his mediation had been taken away.  Pratt then turned to Officer Castro and asked if my uncle could be granted humanitarian parole given his age and condition.

“I think he’s faking,” the medic said, cutting Pratt off.

To prove his point, the medic grabbed my uncle’s head and moved it up and down.  It was rigid rather than limp, he said.  Besides, my uncle would open his eyes now and then and seemed to be looking at him.

“You can’t fake vomit.” Pratt shot back.  “This man is very sick and his medication shouldn’t have been taken away from him.”

The medications were indeed taken away, replied the medic.  In accordance with the facility’s regulations, and others were substituted for them.

The medic and nurse then moved my uncle from the asylum office to a wheelchair in the hallway.

When Maxo arrived, he ran over to his father and seeing him slumped over in the wheelchair and learning over the side, began to cry.  Except for the occasional flutter of his eyelids, it seemed to Maxo that his father was unconscious.  The first thing Maxo want to do was to clean the vomit from his face.

“He wouldn’t be like this if you hadn’t taken away his medication, “ Maxo said, sobbing.

“He’s faking,” repeated the medic.  “He keeps looking at me.”

2008 Nonfiction Runner-up

Cullen Murphy - Are We Rome

“It’s an extraordinary honor to have been chosen as the runner up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and to find myself in such distinguished company.”

— Cullen Murphy

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Cullen Murphy is the editor-at-large of Vanity Fair magazine. He was previously, for two decades, the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Before that he was a senior editor at The Wilson Quarterly. In addition to his work as a magazine editor Murphy for twenty-five years wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant, which was drawn by his father, the illustrator John Cullen Murphy. Murphy’s articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, where he wrote a monthly column, Harper’s, The New Republic, Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, American Heritage, and Smithsonian. His books include The Word According to Eve (1998), about women and the Bible; Just Curious (1995), a collection of essays; and Rubbish! (1992, with William L. Rathje), an anthropological study of garbage. He is currently at work on a book about the Inquisition.

Professional activities aside, Murphy is involved in the work of many organizations. He is a member of the board of trustees of Amherst College, and serves on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Emily Dickinson Museum, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. He is also on the editorial board of The American Scholar and of OnEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and he is a member of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.

He lives and works at his home near Boston.


Book Excerpt

When a reference is made to an ‘imperial presidency,’ or to the president’s aides as a ‘Praetorian Guard,’ or to the deployment abroad of ‘American legions,’ no one quizzically raises an eyebrow and wonders what you could possibly be talking about. To American eyes, Rome is the eagle in the mirror.

The larger question still hangs in the air: Are we Rome? That question leads to others: Does the fate of Rome tell us anything useful about America’s present or America’s future? Must decline and fall lurk somewhere ahead? Can we learn from Rome’s mistakes” Take heart from Rome’s achievements? And, by the way, what exactly was the fate of the Roman Empire? Why do historians lock horns over the question, Did Rome really fall?

Are we Rome? In important ways we just might be. In important ways we’re clearly making some of the same mistakes. But the antidote is everywhere. The antidote is being American.


“President and emperor, America and Rome—the comparison is by now so familiar, so natural, that you just can’t help yourself: it comes to mind unbidden,” writes Cullen Murphy in Are We Rome?, a trenchant book that is as much about the cultural habit, cultural and intellectual need, if you will, we have as Americans to compare our country to Rome as it is about its own comparison of the two civilizations.

Clearly, one reason for the steady stream of historical comparisons is that America is so unique in its exercise of power and influence that its magnitude can be measured only against the greatest empire in human history. Comparing ourselves to Rome, as “Triumphalists” (America is a good imperial empire), is an indication of our self-conscious sense of grandeur, the self-possession of our claim to exceptionalism. One argument goes that the world needs empires as organizing principles and principals, and empires as long as they are good. And Murphy reminds us that part of American exceptionalism has been the unshakable belief among a significant number of Americans that we are the good.

But in another sense, this books is about America’s anxiety of influence, the awareness of “the eagle in the mirror,” the “Declinist’s” view of an overcommitted, “rusted out” nation, gutted by overweening corruption, unhinged by the insanity of its decadence. When we reflect on Rome the question, generated by nervousness and dread, is not Are We Rome but rather Are We Rome Yet? Have we come to the end or the beginning of the end?

Murphy has six points of comparison between us and the Romans: our capital cities (Rome and Washington), our militaries (powerful, but weakened by over-commitment, the rise of privatization or the weakening of our sense of the public good, our views of the outside world or foreigners, our views of borders and growing impossibility of protecting them, and finally the complexity of managing the sprawling complex of power that was Rome and that is the United States. “Are We Rome? In a thousand specific ways, the answer is obviously no. In a handful of important ways, the answer is certainly yes.”

What makes this book so impressive is not simply how elegantly and wittily it is written or that it is succinct but it seems to be charged by our current moment in history. This is, in a sense, an anti-George Bush book—Murphy’s four suggestions to stave off creeping empire-itis (learning languages, enjoying big government, embracing assimilation, reducing the military) sound typically liberal democratic and anti-American exceptionalism. Yet Murphy affirms that which makes us truly exceptional as Americans—our need to constantly improve and our impatience with the status quo. Clearly, we are not quite Rome, at least not yet.

– Gerald Early
2008 finalist judges

2008 Finalists


The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (Penguin Group)

Mixing pop culture and political criticism, this critically acclaimed novel is a warm and humorous account of the American immigrant experience.

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

Set during the Civil War, Coal Black Horse is a brutally honest novel depicting the horrors of war.

Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón (HarperCollins Publishers)

Taking place in a nameless South American country, this powerful story illustrates wars devastating impact on a society transformed by violence.

The Ocean in the Closet by Yuko Taniguchi (Coffee House Press)

A touching novel portraying a young woman’s journey as she helps her family heal and recover from the damages of both the Vietnam War and World War II.

Song for Night by Chris Abani (Akashic Books)

Trained as a human mine detector, a West African boy soldier witnesses and takes part in unspeakable brutality.


Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel (Beacon Press)

An American Muslim from India recounts his journey that led him to embrace religious pluralism and reject hatred.

Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin Company)

Comparing the politics and culture of Ancient Rome with that of the contemporary United States, Murphy reveals lessons on how America can avoid Rome’s demise.

Break Through by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (Houghton Mifflin Company)

The two young environmentalists behind the controversial 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” articulate a new politics for solving the world’s ecological crisis.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf Publishing Group)

A moving memoir of Danticat’s Haitian immigrant family’s struggle to stay connected in spite of living apart.

Fragile Edge by Julia Whitty (Houghton Mifflin Company)

Fragile Edge takes readers on an underwater journey to explore the threats facing coral reefs and why they are vital to human survival.

2008 Book Nominations

1. Acts of Faithby Eboo Patel (Beacon Press)

2. Are We Rome?+by Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin)

3. Beyond the White Houseby Jimmy Carter (Simon and Schuster)

4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao**by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books)

5. Break Throughby Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus
(Houghton Mifflin)

6. Brother, I’m Dying++by Edwidge Danticat (Alfred A. Knopf)

7. Chasing Justiceby Max Cook (Harper Collins)

8. Coal Black Horseby Robert Olmstead (Algonquin Books)

9. Down the Nileby Rosemary Mahoney (Little Brown)

10. The Elephant Suiteby Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt)

11. Endangered Speciesby Stephen M. Younger (Harper Collins)

12. Fragile Edgeby Julia Whi (Houghton Mifflin)

13. The Father of All Thingsby tom Bissell (Pantheon & Schocken)

14. Hold Everything Dearby John Berget (Pantheon Books)

** Fiction Winner
++ Nonfiction Winner
* Fiction Runner-up
+ Nonfiction Runner-up

15. If Today Be Sweetby Thrity Umrigar (Harper Collins)

16. In the Hot Zoneby Kevin Sites (Harper Collins)

17. Lost City Radio*
by Daniel Alarcon (Harper Collins)

18. N Wordby Jabari Asim (Houghton Mifflin)

19. The Ocean in the Closetby Yuko Taniguchi (Coffee House Press)

20. One Day the Soldiers Cameby Charles London (Harper Collins)

21. Peony in Loveby Lisa See (Random House)

22. Road from ar Ramadiby Camilo Mejia (The New Press)

23. Savage Peaceby Ann Hagedorn (Simon and Schuster)

24. Song for Nightby Chris Abani (Akashic Books)

25. Their Dogs Came With Themby Helena Maria Viramontes (Atria Books)

26. Where Have All the Soldiers Goneby James J. Sheehan (Houghton Mifflin)

27. Where Peace Livesby Debbie Robins

28. Why Can’t We Be Goodby Jacob Needleman (Tarcher Penguin)

29. The Witch of Portobelloby Paulo Coelho (Harper Collins)

2008 Publishing Houses that Nominated Books

** 2008 Fiction Winner
++ 2008 Nonfiction Winner
  * 2008 Fiction Runner-up
  + 2008 Nonfiction Runner-up

2008 First Readers

Fred Arment, Novelist and a founder of the Dayton International Peace Museum

Adrienne Cassel, Reader for the Antioch Review and Assoc. Professor of English at Sinclair

Michael Czyzniejeski, Editor in Chief of the Mid-American Review, Professor of English at BGSU

Susan Elliott, Assistant Professor and Head of Public Services at Zimmerman Law Library at UD

Martin Gottlieb, Editorial Writer at the Dayton Daily News

Lucrecia Guererro, Latina Writer

Lisa Hagan, President of Paraview Literary Agency

David Herrelko, Retired Air Force General, Retired Engineering Professor at UD

Tanya Higgins, Writer, Historian

George Houk, Graphic Artist, Nonfiction Writer

Pam Houk, Museum Educator and Writer

Lynette Jones, Professor of African American Literature at WSU

Trudy Krisher, Writer

Peggy Lindsey, Lecturer in English at WSU

Nancy Lupo, ESL specialist

Margarite Merz, Community Volunteer

Jack O’Gorman, Coordinator of Reference, UD Library, Editorial Board of Booklist

Vanessa Perez, PhD in Comparative Literature with emphasis on Latina Literature

Paul Rab, Former Professor of Biology at Sinclair. Specialist in military history

Mike Rose, Book Buyer for Books & Co.

2008 Finalist Judges


Amy Hempel

is the author of four collections of short stories which all appear in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, published in 2006 and named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times. Collected Stories also won the Ambassador Book Award for Best Fiction of the Year, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Hempel has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the United States Artists Foundation, and the Academy of Arts and Letters. She is director of the Graduate Fiction Program at Brooklyn College.

Katherine Vaz

a Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard University and a 2006-7 Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of two novels, Saudade (St. Martin’s Press), a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection, and Mariana in six languages and picked by the Library of Congress as one of the Top 30 International Books of 1998. Her collection Fado & Other Stories won the 1997 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and Our Lady of the Artichokes won the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and her children’s stories has been published in anthologies from Viking and Simon & Schuster.


Gerald Early

is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the English Department at Washington University in St. Louis. He also holds an appointment in the African and Afro-American Studies Program, for which he served as director for eight years, from 1991 through 1998. He is currently the director of Center for the Humanities, formerly known as the International Writers Center started by philosopher/novelist William Gass in 1991.

Professor Early has published several books including Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture and The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. He has also published One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture and Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood. He is currently working on a book about African Americans during the Korean War era as well as a novel about jazz for young people entitled “Up For It.” His latest book is called This is Where I Came In: Essays on Black America in the 1960s, a collection of three lectures published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Jane McCafferty   

is author of three books of fiction: Director of The World and Other Stories, which won the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature and the Great Lakes New Writers Award, a novel, One Heart, and a second volume of stories, Thank You For The Music, from HarperCollins. She has received an NEA grant for a section of her novel, and two Pushcart prizes in non-fiction and fiction. Her essays and stories have been published in a variety of literary journals, and six of her stories have been listed in Best American Short Stories. She has recently edited an anthology of writings by mentally ill people and those who care for them. She is an associate professor of English/Writing at Carnegie Mellon University.

2008 Awards Ceremony

See videos from the 2008 Award Ceremony!

Richard C. Holbrooke Award Taylor Branch

Fiction Award Junot Díaz for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Nonfiction Award Edwidge Danticat for Brother, I’m Dying

Fiction Runner-up Daniel Alarcón for Lost City Radio

Nonfiction Runner-up Cullen Murphy for Are We Rome?

Additional videos

Photos by Andy Snow ( ©2018.

2008 Master of Ceremonies

Nick Clooney

If you ask Nick Clooney what he does for a living, he will tell you he is a reporter. That is true, but hardly exhaustive.

As a television newsman, Nick has been reporter, anchor, managing editor and news director in Lexington, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Buffalo and Los Angeles.

As a columnist, Nick has, since 1989, contributed three columns a week to the Cincinnati and Kentucky Post dealing with subjects as varied as politics, travel, music and American history. Some of his articles and op-ed pieces have appeared in newspapers around the country, including the Los Angeles Times and the Salt lake Tribune.

As an author, he has published three books, including The Movies That Changed Us in 2002.

But the curiosity that drove Nick to a life as a reporter, also led him to explore other areas of interest. He hosted talk shows in Cincinnati and Columbus and music programs on radio. For five years he was a writer and daily on-air spokesman for American Movie Classic cable channel. Now, he is a writer, producer and host for American Life cable channel. His Moments that Changed Usprogram explores the intersection of a person and an important moment in our history. Guests have included John Glenn, Walter Cronkite, Diahann Carroll and Steve Wozniak.

Nick began working on radio full time when he was 17, in his hometown of Maysville, Kentucky.

In addition to his continuing broadcasting career, Nick has been a speaker, master of ceremonies or panelist of more than 3,000 events coast-to-coast.

Nick has accumulated a number of awards and honors over the years, including an Emmy for commentary and three Emmy nominations for his work on American Movie Classics. In December 1998, he received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Northern Kentucky University. In 2000, he received the President’s Medal from Thomas More College, and was inducted into the Cincinnati Journalism Hall of Fame. In 2001, Nick was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. In 2005, he was inducted into the Ohio Television Hall of Fame. In May 2007, Nick received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Kentucky and was the commencement speaker, a task he has undertaken at 31 other schools over the years.

Nick is married to Nina Warren of Perryville, Kentucky, who is a writer, inventor and TV host. Their oldest child, Ada, also a writer, is the mother of the World’s Only Grandchildren, Allison and Nick. The Clooney’s younger child, George, is an Oscar-winning actor, producer, writer and director in films.

In April of 2006, Nick and his son George went to the Sudan and Chad to report on the ongoing genocide in the region of Darfur. Since their return, both have traveled extensively as advocates for a peaceful solution to the crisis. George has spoken at the United Nations and has traveled to China and Egypt. He continues to hold fundraisers, while Nick has made more than 75 speeches at schools, churches, and town meetings. The pair has also made a documentary, Journey to Darfur, which has been shown internationally.

In the early 1970s, Nick and Nina decided to establish a permanent home from which they could travel according to the demands of their peripatetic profession. They moved to the beautiful river town of Augusta, Kentucky. Both of their children graduated from tiny Augusta High School. Eventually, other members of the family found their way to Augusta, including Nick’s famous sister, Rosemary Clooney. After her death in 2002, Rosemary’s home became a museum honoring her career.

Advancing years sometimes dictate a slow-down in professional activity. Someone forgot to tell Nick. He is currently the “distinguished journalist in residence” at the American University in Washington D.C. through the partnership between the school and the Newseum, a 250,000-square-foot museum in Washington dedicated to news. He’ll teach opinion writing this fall and a spring course based on his 2002 book, Movies That Changed Us.

2008 Special Guest

Edwin Corley Moses

Edwin Moses, an Olympic Champion, sports administrator, diplomat and businessman, is one of the most respected and recognised athletes of our time. He has resolutely served and promoted the Olympic movement, and fostered the development of “drug-free” sports and the rights of amateur athletes at all levels. His experience as a distinguished Olympic champion and world record holder has earned him the esteem of the international sports community.

Moses, a physicist from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, is known for utilising the applied sciences to perfect the technical aspects of his athletic performance in his event, the 400 meter hurdles. This knowledge also enabled him to create, implement and administer the world’s most stringent random and out-of-competition testing systems for performance enhancing drugs in sports.

Born 31st August 1955, in Dayton, Ohio, the second of three sons, Moses began his athletic career in age group competitions and later in high school in the 180 yard low hurdles and 440 yard dash. Guided by his parents’ influence on him as educators, he accepted an academic scholarship in engineering from Morehouse College rather than an athletic scholarship elsewhere.

Although there was no track at Morehouse College, Moses trained for the 1976 Olympic trials using the public high school facilities around Atlanta. He subsequently won the trials in the 400 meter hurdles with an American record of 48.30 seconds, making his first Olympic team. At the summer Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, he became the Olympic Champion, bettering the Olympic and World Records with a time of 47.63 seconds. For the next decade he dominated the hurdles accumulating the most amazing string of consecutive victories ever amassed by an individual athlete. Over a period of nine years, nine months and nine days, from August 1977 until May 1987, Moses collected 122 straight victories, 107 of these were finals; this winning streak has remained unbeaten and stands in the Guinness Book of Records to this date.

The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games held in Moscow, thereby denying Moses a second golden opportunity. However, he demonstrated his excellent form in Milan, Italy when he smashed his World Record of 1977 with a new record time of 47.13 seconds. Three years later he lowered the mark once again on his 29th birthday in Koblenz, West Germany, with his time of 47.02. This record remained unbroken until 1992.

Moses took a leave of absence from his engineering position at General Dynamics in 1979, to pursue athletics full-time. On the heels of the passing of the U.S. Amateur Sports Act in Congress in 1978, he set out to improve training conditions and financial support mechanisms from American athletes. At the time, Soviet, East German and other Eastern block athletes were known to be heavily financed by their governments.

Determined to find a method through which U.S. athletes could generate financial support to offset training expenses and earn some income, Moses helped to persuade the Athletics Congress to advocate the liberalisation of the international and Olympic eligibility rules by adopting a revolutionary concept to provide revenue through an Athletes Trust Fund programme. The Trust Fund would enable athletes to create accounts administered by their respective sport bodies, within which government or privately supplied stipends, direct payments and monies derived from commercial endorsements could be deposited and periodically drawn from by an athlete for training and other expenses without jeopardising their Olympic eligibility.

Moses was asked to provide a presentation to Mr Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, which was both persuasive and innovative. Mr Samaranch and the IOC commission then ratified the concept in late 1981. The Trust Fund is currently the basis of many Olympic athlete subsistence, stipend and corporate support programmes, including the USOC’s well-funded Direct Athlete Assistance Programmes.

Meanwhile, Moses continued to perform brilliantly in Track and Field. In 1983, he won his first World title at the first World Championships at Helsinki, Finland. One of the accolade moments of his career came one year later at the Olympic Games of Los Angeles when he was chosen to recite the Athletes’ Oath during opening ceremonies. A few days later, he reaffirmed his unparalleled sportsmanship by winning his second Olympic Gold Medal.

As a sports administrator, Moses is best known for his skilful and courageous directives in the development of policies against the use of performance enhancing drugs. He recognised the disastrous affects that rampant use of these drugs by athletes, could cast upon the sport of Track and Field. He also feared that continued, unchecked steroid abuse would eventually dismantle the fabric of International sports. In 1993, he decided to make the first major public challenge in the assault against performance enhancing drugs in sports, together with a few other dedicatedly pure Track and Field athletes, who became pioneers in the development, administration and implementation of the sport’s world’s most stringent random in-competition drug testing systems.

Between the years of 1983 and 1989, as an athlete member of The Athletics Congress, Moses continually monitored the progress and the results of the in-competition random testing programme. Although immersed in both national and international committee work by 1986, he found time to prepare himself for a bronze medal performance at the 1989 Seoul, Korea Olympic Games.

In December 1989, convinced that a small minority of athletes had developed sophisticated methods to escape normal in-competition testing procedures, fortified with the support of athletes, physicians and expert scientists world-wide, created and designed amateur sport’s first random out-of-competition drug testing programme.

With the assistance of some of the United States’ esteemed legal scholars and overwhelming support from TAC, Moses and his colleagues successfully legislated and implemented testing under the unprecedented programme. He further successfully nurtured the new testing programme through its formative period, which continues to operate successfully to date. Many believe the deterrent effect of the out-of-competition testing program has significantly contributed to a decrease in the use of steroids and other performance enhancing methods in sports.

Moses has also worked with; the Special Olympics, Montana State Games, Goodwill Games and the USOC’S own Olympic Festival. In addition, he has served on the USOC with a delegation that lobbied U.S. Congressmen and Senators to support efforts to include a “tax check-off” on the Federal Income Tax form and on issues relating to the Unrelated Business Income Tax provisions in current legislation.

Selected as an athlete representative, Moses accompanied the IOC Commission on Apartheid and Olympism, which travelled to Johannesburg and Cape Town prior to the return of South Africa to the Olympic Family, under the leadership of the Honourable Judge Keba Mbaye of Senegal and Francois Carrard, Director of the IOC.

In spring of 1994, Moses received a Masters in Business Administration in Business Administration in Business Management from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He was also a founding partner in the Platinum Group, a management partnership, which represents world-class athletes in their business endeavours. He served as a member of the President’s Circle, an advisory group, which advises the President of the National Academy of Sciences on scientific, economic and environmental policy. In May of 1993, he was named by the White House to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships as a commissioner and selector of applicants for the White House Fellowship Programme. In addition, he served as a member of the National Criminal Justice Commission and has been elected by the Athletes’ Advisory Council to the Executive Committee of the USOC. He received the ultimate honour bestowed by his sport when he was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame on 3rd December 1994.

Moses worked as a financial Consultant with The Robinson-Humphrey Company, Inc., an investment banking firm and subsidiary of Smith Barney Inc., which is based in Atlanta, Georgia, site of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.

In 2000, he was elected by his fellow members to become the Chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy, a position which he still holds.

The Laureus World Sports Academy is a unique association of 45 of the greatest living sporting legends from sports as diverse as football, tennis, athletics, skateboarding and motor racing. All the members of the Academy share a belief in the power of sport to break down barriers, bring people together and improve the lives of young people around the world.

During the February 2008 Laureus Awards hosted by President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg, Russia; Moses, Sean Fitzpatrick (Rugby), Steve Waugh (Cricket) and Marcel Desailly (Football), entered a televised debate on CNN television relating to drugs and racism in sport, the question of Darfur and its relation to the Bejing Olympics in 2008.

In May 2008, Edwin as the Honorary Chairman of the Major Taylor Association along with its members celebrated the more than 100 year old legacy of Seven-time World Champion cyclist Marshall W. ‘Major’ Taylor in Wooster Massachusetts. Taylor, an African-American competing in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was memorialised with perhaps the most beautiful and elegant statue made in honour of a sports legend in America

Moses is also a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor; the highest civilian award given to American citizens by the US Congress for his and the 1980 US Olympic Team personal sacrifice upon being forced to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia.