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Editor’s Note, November/December 2001

100 Years of the Nobel Prize

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, November/December 2001 | Volume 22, Number 6

The most celebrated scientists, writers, and peacemakers in the world, some 250 of them, will gather in Stockholm and Oslo this December to mark a milestone: the one-hundredth anniversary of the Nobel Prize. In Stockholm’s Concert Hall and Oslo’s City Hall, they will raise a toast to a dozen new laureates joining their number.

The man for whom all this was named was a curious mix -- a man who was a writer of poetry in his younger days, an inventor, and later, the millionaire manufacturer of dynamite. His curiosity led him into other fields as well, synthetic rubber and artificial silk among them. Alfred Nobel held 355 patents at the time of his death.

In the year he was born, 1833, the Nobels went bankrupt in the construction business. They left Stockholm for St. Petersburg, where Alfred’s father made a comfortable living manufacturing mines for the Russian Army. The boys were tutored at home in the natural sciences, languages, and literature, but when Alfred developed a proclivity for poetry, his father sent him abroad to study chemical engineering. Financial vicissitudes arose again; half the family stayed behind in Russia to save some existing oil leases while the others, including Alfred, his father, and two brothers, returned to Sweden and the explosives business, where they ultimately became rich. The range of interests Alfred Nobel cultivated was reflected in his will. He specified that his wealth be divided into prizes for those who had done work of benefit to mankind in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and the advocacy of peace.

Since 1901, there have been more than seven hundred laureates. The names resonate across the century: Marie Curie . . . Albert Einstein . . . Thomas Mann . . . Albert Camus . . . Jane Addams . . . Albert Schweitzer. . . Andrei Sakharov . . . Linus Pauling . . . Martin Luther King . . . Czeslaw Milosz . . . Nelson Mandela . . .

In this issue of Humanities, we look at the lives of some of the laureates whose work has been the subject of NEH-supported projects. They range from John Steinbeck to Albert Einstein and Woodrow Wilson. We talk with poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who was awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. He discusses influences on his writing, from Shakespeare to Synge. “The whole mission for a writer or painter or any artist—it’s true of any culture,” Walcott tells NEH Chairman William R. Ferris, “is to find out what you mean, and you can only know what you mean by knowing who you are.” Walcott’s epic of the Caribbean, Omeros, is described by Professor William S. Shullenberger as revising present-day readers’ relationship to Homer. “It sharpens our attention to structures of imaginative, moral, and social power articulated in the Iliad,” he writes. “Reading the two poems together renews our awareness of the Iliad’s pertinence to our times, and renews our sympathy for those remote and godlike yet deeply vulnerable characters who enact and suffer our ultimate concerns.”

The role of language as a repository of culture takes us from Walcott’s Caribbean to the Old World and the shaping of a mother tongue. The Middle English Dictionary is off the press after seventy-one years of preparation. The dictionary examines the meanings of English words from the time of the Norman Conquest to the advent of printing; soon it will be online with 55,000 entries and 900,000 quotations.