April 28, 2006
Director of Media Relations
AMHERST, Mass.—Peter Pouncey, the president emeritus of Amherst College, has been selected to receive the 2006 Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from The American Academy of Arts and Letters for “his extraordinary debut novel,” Rules for Old Men Waiting (2005), a novel about three wars of the 20th century and a marriage. The award is presented annually to “a writer whose work merits recognition for its prose style.”
USAToday noted that “The novel is as layered as the richest wedding cake but far more nourishing.” According to novelist and memoirist Frank McCourt, it is “a deeply sensual, moving, thrilling novel that calls for a second and third reading—it is that rich.” Praised as “an intense, memorable little book” in the Times of London, Pouncey’s first novel is “so rich and reasoned and full-blown that only time could have produced it,” according to the Boston Globe. The New York Public Library selected Rules for Old Men Waiting as one of its “25 Books to Remember from 2005.”
Robert MacIver, the protagonist of Rules, is a recently widowed and rapidly aging historian grieving alone in the winter in an unheated Cape Cod house “older than the Republic.” The house is perhaps more debilitated than MacIver is: when the frame of his dwelling starts collapsing, he formulates his “Ten Commandments for Old Men Waiting.” Because one injunction is to “Work every morning,” he writes a short story about the suffering of soldiers in the First World War, drawing on materials he gathered for an oral history of victims of poison gas. Rules for Old Men Waiting is a story within a story, an invented tale of the Great War that prompts MacIver to reflect on his role in the Second World War and his son’s in Vietnam.
The president of Amherst College from 1984 to 1994, Pouncey is a classicist by training. Born in China to English parents, Pouncey was educated in the Greek and Latin classics in English boarding schools and at Oxford. He taught at Fordham University and Columbia University, specializing in classical historiography. He served as dean of the college at Columbia during the politically active 1970s.
Composed of 250 writers, composers, painters, sculptors and architects, The American Academy of Arts and Letters fosters and sustains interest in literature, music and the fine arts by identifying and encouraging individual artists, through awards and prizes, as well as exhibitions of art and manuscripts, staged readings and performances of new works, at its headquarters on Audubon Terrace in upper Manhattan, and the purchase of works of art and their distribution to museums. The Academy’s 250 members nominate candidates for awards, and a rotating committee of writers selects winners. The members of the 2006 committee were Edward Hoagland, John Hollander, Romulus Linney, Janet Malcom, Grace Paley, Reynolds Price and William Jay Smith.