Eugenides, Chernow voted into arts academy

Eugenides, Chernow voted into arts academy

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jeffrey Eugenides, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, was in an especially inventive mood one night as he was walking to his office at Princeton University.

He wondered if he would ever be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the venerable honor society where members have ranged from Mark Twain to Dizzy Gillespie.

"Believe me, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about things like that," Eugenides, known for such works as "Middlesex" and "The Marriage Plot," told The Associated Press in a recent email. "But for some reason I did that night. I imagined myself finally being inducted at the age of 90, and saying to the other members, 'About time!' That was my self-pitying little fantasy."

His answer came much sooner. The next day, the academy called and gave him the good news. Eugenides was in — at age 57.

"When I told (academy executive director) Cody Upton this story, he said that they had sent the letter out the day before, at the very same time the notion popped into my mind," Eugenides wrote.

Eugenides was one of 12 new members, the academy told The Associated Press on Tuesday. Others voted in include historian Ron Chernow, playwrights Lynn Nottage and Terrence McNally and authors George Saunders, Maxine Hong Kingston and Jayne Anne Phillips. The academy also elected the visual artists Jenny Holzer, Nicole Eisenman and Sarah Sze and musicians Ben Johnston and George Lewis. Honorary members selected were Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, Dutch author Ian Buruma, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo and the American conductor-composer Michael Tilson Thomas.

Founded in 1898, the academy has a core membership of 250 artists, writers and composers. Along with its 2018 inductees, the academy also has a new president: architect Billie Tsien, who, along with her partner Tod Williams, is designing the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago. She succeeds the composer Yehudi Wyner.

For most of the class of 2018, the induction was entirely unimagined. Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton is the basis for the Broadway musical, said the news "came out of the blue" and was especially welcome "because so few biographers are members." Nottage, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "Sweat," was also gratified to see her art form recognized.

"As I playwright, I often feel like an outsider in the literary world, so it is an exhilarating feeling to be invited into a community that values and celebrates literature, music and fine arts," said Nottage, who praised the Beaux Arts buildings that house the academy in upper Manhattan. "Walking the beautiful halls of the academy you get a real sense of history."

The new members will be formally inducted in May, when the academy also hands out a wide range of literary prizes. Eugenides remembered attending in 1995 and being "suitably awed."

"John Updike gave an eloquent speech," he said. "I had never seen so many of my literary heroes assembled in one place before. My old teacher, John Hawkes, was also there. The premises were impressive but the membership was even more so. That year, Richard Ford was among the inductees. And Don DeLillo was there in the flesh, and spoke to me, and had read my first book ('The Virgin Suicides'). He told me the second would be harder to come by. He was right."

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