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Tribune recognizes the word well-written

On Nov. 3, 2002, Arthur Miller stepped up to the Armour Stage at Symphony Center, stood at the podium and read from his book "On Politics and the Art of Acting," in which he explored the American political stage.

As inaugural winner of the Tribune Literary Prize that year, Miller was honored for his accomplishments, which so enriched our world by shining klieg lights on American culture. Through characters such as a condemned Puritan and a disillusioned salesman, Miller had taken on topics like McCarthyism and materialism, forcing reflection on the contradictory notions of American success.

One could say we have a thing for playwrights, giving them a prominent place in the Chicago literary tradition. Others we have honored include August Wilson, Tony Kushner and Sam Shepard, and this year's winner is genius composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Those choices are appropriate; Studs Terkel, winner of the Heartland Prize in 2002 for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and a friend of Miller's, once wrote: "Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It's the most theatrically corrupt."

During Miller's appearance, when it came time for questions, one gentleman in the crowd of more than 1,000 shouted out, "Mr. Miller, how do you remember Marilyn Monroe?"

An uncomfortable silence followed. Arthur Miller smiled and replied: "Very well."

Since then, Miller and Wilson have died, but other playwrights we have honored — Kushner and Shepard — flourish. And among the writers we have recognized are David McCullough, whose "The Greater Journey" came out in the spring; Tom Wolfe and Margaret Atwood, who have novels forthcoming; and Joyce Carol Oates, who remains an unstoppable writing machine.

Establishment of the Literary Prize in 2002 built on our Heartland Prizes, established in 1988, to honor writing about the metaphorical heart of the country. This isn't a regional award; it's designed, rather, to celebrate and honor work between the coasts. This year, Jonathan Franzen wins for his novel "Freedom," and Isabel Wilkerson for her nonfiction work "The Warmth of Other Suns."

Over the years, we have had some amazing Heartland winners: Jane Smiley ("A Thousand Acres"), Mona Simpson ("Off Keck Road"), Louise Erdrich ("The Painted Drum"), William Cronon ("Nature's Metropolis") and one writer who has won twice: Ward Just for "Jack Gance" and, more than a decade later, "An Unfinished Season."

Last year's winners, E.O. Wilson for "Anthill" and Rebecca Skloot for "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," shared thematic roots in the world of science, but that was a rare link between the fiction and nonfiction winners. Though we don't favor Chicago authors in the selection of these prizes, we can burst with a bit of hometown pride over Joseph Epstein, Aleksandar Hemon, Alex Kotlowitz, Scott Turow, Garry Wills and our dear friend, Studs Terkel, who died in 2008.

In an age of "American Idol," prizes are one way to celebrate great writers and writing, but our goal is to extend passion for books, writers, readers and ideas through the year when the prize is just an enthusiastic audience. Our monthly talks with authors are part of our growing Printers Row family. We have hosted authors such as Elizabeth Berg, Amy Chua, Sapphire, Kathryn Stockett, Alexander McCall Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides.

Please join us Sunday morning at Symphony Center to hear Stephen Sondheim, and make a day of it by heading to the UIC Forum for Jonathan Franzen and Isabel Wilkerson. If you can't make it, we hope to see you at another event, and we especially hope that you'll read these writers who make words and ideas sing and dance, on the page — and on the stage.

Events coming up: Umberto Eco on Nov. 13 (sorry, it's sold out); Luis Alberto Urrea on Jan. 11 to discuss his "Queen of America," and in February, Wael Ghonim, author of "Revolution 2.0," his inside story about the Arab Spring and the revolution in Egypt. (Check TribNation.com/events for details.)

We also look forward to next summer's Printers Row Lit Fest, the largest festival of book lovers between the coasts. (Mark your calendars: June 9-10.) That weekend we'll announce winners of the Young Adult Book Prize and the Nelson Algren Short Story contest. Last year we hosted more than 200 authors, 100 vendors and 100,000 book lovers in the historic Printers Row neighborhood; we look forward to another great festival.

etaylor@tribune.com

The where and when

Stephen Sondheim receives Chicago Tribune Literary Prize.
When: 10 a.m. Sunday
Where: Armour Stage at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

Jonathan Franzen and Isabel Wilkerson receive the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: University of Illinois at Chicago Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road

Tickets for both events: $5-15, available at chicagohumanities.org or at the door.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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