Yale University has just announced the establishment of one of the largest series of literary awards in the United States. The Donald Windham – Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes, consisting of seven to nine grants each worth $150,000, will be awarded annually to “recognize both established and promising writers in fiction, non-fiction, and drama,” with the option of a poetry prize to be added as well. The idea here is to give award-winners the opportunity to do nothing but write for a year… although if we’re talking about supporting the lifestyles to which most writers I know have become accustomed, that could easily stretch to three. At any rate, it’s a startlingly generous prize. The fact that Donald Windham—who never attended college himself—has specified that recipients needn’t have any academic affiliations also opens it up to some potentially interesting choices.
Windham, who died in May, 2010, came to New York at 18 to be a writer. While he published several critically received novels—Two People was reviewed in the March 2010 Open Letters Monthly—and even placed some short stories in the New Yorker, he was more of a star for the company he kept. He was close to Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, eventually publishing memoirs about their friendships, and ran in circles that included New York City Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein, E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Joseph Cornell, and painter Paul Cadmus.
Though he may have kept some colorful company, Windham and his companion of 45 years, Sandy Campbell, lived modestly and invested well. In addition to providing the prize endowment, according to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Librarty’s blog he left the Yale Collection of American Literature
… a rich and diverse trove of correspondence between Windham and Campbell and Williams, Forster, Capote, and Isherwood, as well as other notable writers such as Carson McCullers, Marianne Moore, Graham Greene, Isak Dinesen and Paul Bowles. Also in the collection are photographs by George Platt Lynes and Carl Van Vechten. The bequest adds additional writings, correspondence with literary luminaries, photographs, and artwork, including the gift of a Paul Cadmus painting to the Yale University Art Gallery.
It will be interesting to see who the board—consisting of the executors of Windham’s estate, a rare book dealer, and a retired English professor, with others to be selected—will choose to honor, and why. There’s the potential to reward some truly innovative writing and sidestep the usual suspects, if the judges so choose. The prize will be awarded yearly beginning in late 2012 or early 2013, so we have a while to wait, and speculate. And for the writers reading this, remember the New York Lottery slogan: Hey, you never know.
(Photograph of Donald Windham [standing, left] and Sandy Campbell by Carl Van Vechten, October 26, 1955, courtesty of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)