Wesley Morris: A Critic Who Captured the Moment

From a Times Insider column by Sarah Bahr headlined “A Critic Who Captured the Moment”:

Wesley Morris was ready for his medal.

In 2012, he had just won his first Pulitzer Prize for criticism, as a writer for The Boston Globe, and was at the ceremony at Columbia University with his mother. But when he wondered out loud where he could pick up the award, he got a surprise.

“Oh, sweetie,” Tracy K. Smith, that year’s poetry winner, told him. “We don’t get a medal, only the public service winner gets that. We get a paperweight.”

“My mom was like, ‘Oh my God, Wesley,’” he said, laughing.

It was the rare oversight for Mr. Morris, a deep thinker and New York Times critic at large who recently won his second Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the only person to receive that award twice.

He was recognized for an ambitious body of work over the past year on race and culture that included not only incisive essays about the racial justice movement and the impact of cellphone videos on Black Americans, but poignant personal pieces like a Times Magazine story about how growing a mustache was connected to his sense of Blackness.

“I love important, weighty ideas,” he said, though he added that he also likes considering topics that are lighthearted and frivolous.

Gilbert Cruz, The Times’s culture editor, said Mr. Morris’s pieces stood out for their scope and accessibility.

“He has a unique ability to step back, look across the cultural and social landscape and speak to us in a way that makes it seem as if we’re engaged in a conversation,” Mr. Cruz said. “A funny, smart, sometimes emotional and always riveting conversation.”

Sia Michel, The Times’s deputy culture editor who has edited Mr. Morris’s work for three years, similarly praised both Mr. Morris’s intellect and his common touch. “He has an imposing sense of critical authority and moral authority but always invites the reader in,” she said.

Mr. Morris said his dreams of becoming a critic dated back to when he received an assignment in eighth grade: Write a report after either reading Howard Fast’s 1961 novel “April Morning” or watching the TV movie version of it. He decided to do both, then wrote a scathing critical review.

“You didn’t really do what I asked you to do,” he recalls his teacher, John Kozempel, telling him. “But you did do a thing that exists in the world. It’s called criticism, and this is a good example of it.”

Of course, not everyone can write elegant essays that educate even when they excoriate, and which provide an entry point to a conversation rather than closing a door to opposing views. But when Mr. Morris begins to put words on a page, the ideas flow.

“I don’t know how I feel about a lot of things until I sit down to write about them,” he said. “That’s my journey as a writer — to figure out where my brain, heart and moral compass are with respect to whatever I’m writing about.”

When Mr. Morris files a story, Ms. Michel said, she always knows she’ll get four things: surprising pop cultural and historical connections; a brilliant thesis; at least one “breathtaking” passage that reads like poetry; and a memorable, revised-to-perfection ending.

“He always reworks his last graph until it slays,” she said….

When Mr. Morris won his first Pulitzer in 2012, Mx. Wortham, who uses she/they pronouns, was a newly hired Business reporter for The Times who had been assigned to write a story about him. They left a voice mail message and sent an email to Mr. Morris.

Thinking he would be too busy to respond right away, Mx. Wortham went out for coffee but after returning found a long, thoughtful voice mail from Mr. Morris with “more information than I needed.”

“It left the deepest impression on me,” Mx. Wortham said. “And I remember thinking I would strive to be someone who always made time for other reporters.”

Their friendship, which began six years ago, has only blossomed and deepened since then, Mx. Wortham said.

“I’ve seen Wesley give a barefoot unhoused man money for a pair of shoes and absolutely demolish a dance floor with equal amounts of grace,” she said. “There’s no one like him, and we are all so lucky to exist in this iteration of life alongside him.”

Although Mr. Morris’s profile is much higher now, he said he intended to respond to every one of the hundreds of congratulatory emails, texts, calls and Twitter messages he received after this year’s win — a goal that’s still in progress.

“I’m still not done,” he said recently. “Even with strangers, if someone took a second out of their life to congratulate me for this, it’s important to me to say thank you.”

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