Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

One of literature’s most prestigious honors, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters recognizes individuals who have made an exceptional impact on this country’s literary heritage.

National Book Foundation to Present Lifetime Achievement Award to Rita Dove

Distinguished Contribution to American Letters medal, 2014. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

The National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards, announced that it will award Rita Dove with the 2023 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (DCAL). Dove’s sweeping body of work features eleven books of poetry, including Museum, Grace NotesSelected Poems, Mother LoveOn the Bus with Rosa Parks, American SmoothSonata Mulattica, Playlist for the Apocalypse, and her debut collection, The Yellow House on the Corner; a novel, Through the Ivory Gate; a collection of her Poet Laureate lectures titled The Poet’s World; a short story collection, Fifth Sunday; and the play The Darker Face of the Earth. She is the Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Thomas and Beulah, her third collection of poetry based loosely on the lives of her maternal grandparents. From 1993 to 1995, Dove served as the first Black Poet Laureate of the United States. Dove, whose career-spanning Collected Poems 1974–2004 was an NAACP Image Award winner and a Finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, will be presented with the DCAL Medal by author, National Book Award Finalist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown at the 74th National Book Awards Ceremony & Benefit Dinner on November 15, 2023.

Dove is the only poet to date to have received both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts. Her numerous honors include the 2008 Library of Virginia Lifetime Achievement Award, a 2009 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2014 Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, a 2017 NAACP Image Award, the 2019 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, the 2021 Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 2022 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress, a 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and 29 honorary doctorates from higher education institutions.

“Throughout her career, Rita Dove’s poetry has served as a guiding light for readers and writers alike, and has made an indelible impact on our literary and cultural heritage,” said David Steinberger, Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “It is with great pride that we celebrate Rita Dove’s powerful and expansive body of work by presenting her with the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.”

Dove was born in Akron, Ohio; she is a graduate of Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, studied German poetry at Universität Tübingen as a Fulbright fellow, and received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa. From 1999–2000, Dove served as a Special Bicentennial Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress and was the Poet Laureate of the state of Virginia from 2004–2006. She was the editor of both The Best American Poetry 2000 and The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Dove has served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, as president of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. She has written numerous plays and songs; Dove’s musical training includes cello, viola da gamba, and classical voice, and she is also a ballroom dancer. Dove is currently the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, where she has taught since 1993.

“Rita Dove’s oeuvre—from poetry, plays, and songs to essays and fiction—is a testament to her dazzling skill across genre and form,” said Ruth Dickey, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “Dove’s work transforms the everyday into the remarkable, brilliantly blending music, politics, and, let’s not forget, pleasure. With her writing, Dove proves that (as she notes) ‘nothing is too small or ordinary’ to be ‘worthy of poetry’ and affirms that history transcends mere instruction. Rita Dove is central to the legacy of American literature, and the Foundation is so proud to honor her extensive literary accomplishments.”

Dove is the 36th recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement. Previous recipients include Walter Mosley, Edmund White, Isabel Allende, Robert A. Caro, John Ashbery, Ursula K. Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Karen Tei Yamashita, and most recently, Art Spiegelman. Nominations for the DCAL medal are made by former National Book Award Winners, Finalists, judges, and other writers and literary professionals from around the country. The final selection is made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors. Recipients of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters receive $10,000 and a solid brass medal, presented at the National Book Awards.

The 74th National Book Awards will be hosted by Drew Barrymore and feature special guest Oprah Winfrey on Wednesday, November 15, 2023 at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. The in-person Ceremony & Benefit Dinner, which will be broadcast live for readers everywhere, will include the presentation of the Foundation’s two lifetime achievement awards and the 2023 National Book Award Winners in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature. For more information about the 74th National Book Awards Ceremony & Benefit Dinner and to register for the broadcast, please visit nationalbook.org/awards.

ABOUT RITA DOVE

Rita Dove received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for her third collection of poetry, Thomas and Beulah. From 1993­–1995 she served as U.S. Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. Her most recent poetry books are Sonata Mulattica, Collected Poems 1974-2004, and Playlist for the Apocalypse. She has also published short stories, essays, and the novel Through the Ivory Gate. Her play The Darker Face of the Earth had its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1996 and its European premiere at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1999. Her song cycle Seven for Luck, with music by John Williams, was first presented at Tanglewood in 1998, and her song cycle A Standing Witness, with music by Richard Danielpour, at the Kennedy Center in 2021.

Dove’s most recent literary honors include the 2019 Wallace Stevens Award; the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ 2021 Gold Medal for Poetry (as the third woman and first Black poet to receive the Academy’s highest honor in its 110-year history); a 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation; and a 2022 Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. President Bill Clinton presented Ms. Dove the 1996 National Humanities Medal / Charles Frankel Prize, and President Barack Obama presented her with the 2011 National Medal of Arts, making her the only poet who has received both national medals. To date, she has received 29 honorary doctorates. She teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she is the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing.

ABOUT JERICHO BROWN

Image of poet Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown (Photo credit: Brian Cornelius)

Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Award and fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown’s first book, Please, won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets. He is also the author of the collection The Tradition, which was a Finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry and the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His poems have appeared in Buzzfeed, The Nation, the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, TIME Magazine, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry anthologies.

National Book Foundation's Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Medallion

Every fall, in conjunction with the conferring of The National Book Awards in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature, the Board of Directors of the Foundation also presents a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The recipient is a person who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work. Recipients of the Award receive $10,000.

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