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Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture



Thomas Wolfe Lecture 2021, Frank Bruni




Over a long, distinguished, and varied career, Frank Bruni has not written about just one thing, but seemingly about all things: food, war, movies, George Bush, New York City, Congress, religion, and, intimately, about his own life. But through every incarnation he has never not been himself, unabashedly honest, incisive, and human.

As far back as the mid 80s, when he was a writer for The Daily Tar Heel, his nascent voice and lifelong interests were evident. In 1984, he wrote about the burgeoning AIDS epidemic with an uncanny foresight; he wrote about a visit by Gary Hart, whom he criticized for offering no more than “placebo profundities”; he wrote an eloquent profile of Coretta Scott King. And in his weekly column “The Ferret Wheel,” he wrote compellingly about the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” commercial. “In light of the phrase’s ever-spreading popularity,” he noted, “an argument could be made that the Wendy’s woman is the lament of a generation weaned on empty promises and subjected to endless public deceptions.” Indeed. His sentences, then and now, have a confidence and clarity all writers strive for, and he has a steady moral compass as well, virtues that rarely pair up.

Bruni joined The New York Times in 1995, coming from The Detroit Free Press, where he was the chief movie critic and religion writer. Over the next 25 years, he served The Times as metro reporter, White House correspondent, Rome bureau chief, and chief restaurant critic. As a staff writer, he profiled J. J. Abrams and a health-obsessed billionaire who planned to live to 125; as the Rome bureau chief, he kept up with both Pope John Paul II and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Finally, and perhaps most famously, in 2011 he became Op-Ed columnist. This may have been the ideal job for such an expansive writer. In 2016, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association gave him its Randy Shilts Award for his career-long contribution to LGBT Americans. Earlier this year, he retired as a regular columnist to teach at a little-known university in the Triangle area (Duke, where he will be the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice for Journalism and Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy and will continue to write his The New York Times newsletter and remain a contributing opinion writer).

He is the author of three New York Times best sellers: an examination of the college admissions frenzy, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be (2015); a memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater (2009), about the joys and torments of his eating life; and Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush (2002). With Jennifer Steinhauler, he has also written A Meatloaf in Every Oven: Two Chatty Cooks, One Iconic Dish, and Dozens of Recipes (2017).

A Morehead Scholar at Carolina, Bruni graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1986, with a B.A. in English. “UNC,” he writes, “significantly expanded my world, took me out of my comfort zone in the best possible way, and taught me the limits of any one person’s experiences and the cinched parameters of any one perspective. That was an invaluable gift not only in terms of my subsequent journalism career and writing. That was an invaluable gift in terms of my humanity.”


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The 2021 Thomas Wolfe Lecture is part of the Department of English and Comparative Literature celebration of 225 years of rhetoric, writing, film, and literature. Click here to learn about and register for more 225 events.

History of the Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture

The Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture honor the memory of one of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s most famous alumni, Thomas Clayton Wolfe (Class of 1920). Established in 1999 with an endowed gift to the Department of English, the program recognizes contemporary writers with distinguished bodies of work. And in doing so, the program seeks to give University students and the surrounding community the opportunity to hear important writers of their time.

The Department of English bestows this prize each fall, around the time of Wolfe’s October 3 birthday. In addition to receiving prize money and a medal, the honored writer comes to campus as the University’s guest and delivers a lecture, which is free and open to the public. This event is a well-attended major campus and community occasion.

Thomas Wolfe is best known for his novel Look Homeward, Angel, which was published to rave reviews in 1929. Before his death in 1938, Wolfe also published Of Time and the River (1935). His novels The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940) were published posthumously. Wolfe’s writings reflect a largeness of spirit and an expansive vision of life, while anchored in geographic place.

Sponsors of the 2018 Thomas Wolfe Lecture are alumnus John Skipper (BA English 1978), The Thomas Wolfe Society, and the Department of English and Comparative Literature. The prize money comes from the Thomas Wolfe Endowment Fund. UNC Alumnus Ben Jones (class of 1950) gave the medals that each recipient receives.

Previous Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture Recipients

collage of previous recepients