Brown alumnus captures Pulitzer Prize for Susan Sontag biography

Benjamin Moser, a Class of 1998 graduate, won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for the authorized biography “Sontag: Her Life and Work" — and a team led in part by Brown alumnus Ira Glass captured the first ever prize for audio reporting.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University alumnus Benjamin Moser won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” his authorized biography of the acclaimed American writer Susan Sontag.

Moser was one of a small handful of Brown alumni recognized by the Pulitzer Prize board in an announcement on Monday, May 4. Class of 1981 graduate and "This American Life" host Ira Glass was part of a team that captured the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting for their work on a podcast episode titled "The Out Crowd." And Class of 2001 graduate Ben Lerner was named a finalist in the fiction category for his book "The Topeka School."

The Pulitzer Prize board called Moser’s biography “an authoritatively constructed work told with pathos and grace, that captures the writer’s genius and humanity alongside her addictions, sexual ambiguities and volatile enthusiasms.” 

Benjamin MoserMoser, who graduated from Brown in 1998 before earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Utretcht University in the Netherlands, said he spent seven years writing the 800-page biography in an attempt to do justice to Sontag’s complex, enthralling life. 

“I love a challenging subject, and especially one as exciting as Sontag,” Moser said in a 2019 interview with the Library of America. “On the intellectual side, a life of Sontag is a history of modern art, literature, politics, medicine, sexuality, psychology, and philosophy... And on the personal side, you get to write about a larger-than-life character — and one who surrounded herself with the most fascinating, accomplished people of her time.”

Though Sontag died in 2004, Moser said much of her writing still seems timely today. Her 1977 book “On Photography,” for example, explores the historical tension between image and identity, a hot topic in the era of social media. 

“A really great writer is one whose work becomes even more relevant with time,” he said in the 2019 interview. “Sontag gives us a key to so many things that seem hot off the presses.” 

As a Brown undergraduate, Moser concentrated in history and Portuguese. He was named a Royce Fellow in 1996 and researched immigration to Brazil in the first half of the 20th century with a focus on understanding the experiences of Jewish people who settled in the country.

Moser wasn’t the only Brown alumnus to win a 2020 Pulitzer. The first-ever prize for audio reporting went to reporters and producers who created “The Out Crowd,” an episode of the podcast “This American Life.” Ira Glass, the host and producer of “This American Life,” graduated from Brown in 1981; he and his staff worked with Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole and freelance writer Emily Green on the episode.

“The Out Crowd” shared stories of individuals and families who have been impacted by President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. The Pulitzer Prize board praised the episode’s “revelatory, intimate journalism.”

Benjamin Lerner, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown in 2001 and 2003, respectively, was named a finalist in the fiction category for his book “The Topeka School.” Louise Aronson, a Class of 1986 graduate, was named a finalist in the general nonfiction category for her book “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life.”