This weekend, I’m planning to attend the annual Medal Day celebration at the MacDowell artists colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. There will be a posthumous celebration of the life of Gunther Schuller, the renowned composer and former president of the New England Conservatory of Music.
This posthumous award was an accident of fate. Schuller died in June, two months after MacDowell selected him for the medal. Last month, the Boston Symphony Orchestra also honored Schuller, post-mortem, at its Festival of Contemporary Music in Tanglewood.
I say in the strongest possible terms: Please, no more posthumous awards! Celebrate the living while we have them. Post-mortem festivities benefit only ourselves.
There is an ignoble history of posthumous prizes, all too often granted because nominating committees caught up with history only after it was too late. Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence who freed India from its colonial masters, never received the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2006, Geir Lundestad, secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said, “Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether the Nobel Committee can do without Gandhi is the question.”
By way of acknowledging its mistake, the Nobel Committee declined to award the prize in 1948, the year Gandhi died. “There was no suitable living candidate,” they said. No Peace Prize for Gandhi; yes Peace Prize for Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, and Barack Obama. History has a grim sense of humor.
Likewise the Pulitzer Prize Board has done some hasty backfilling over the years. (Not with 1994 laureate Gunther Schuller, however.) Sylvia Plath won a Pulitzer for her poetry in 1982, nineteen years after her suicide. One wonders how the honor might have changed the course of her life.
Other famous winners from beyond the grave include novelists John Kennedy Toole and James Agee, and the poet William Carlos Williams. Toole had also killed himself, in despair over his obscurity.
The Pulitzer committee has a special “Oops!” category, called Special Awards and Citations, to rectify its many errors. African-American musical geniuses? Sorry; we forgot. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin — I hope they are savoring their posthumous Pulitzers in heaven, because they weren’t recognized at the height of their careers here on earth.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has also handed out Oscars to tombstones. Most notably, Dalton Trumbo won the 1953 Best Writing Oscar for “Roman Holiday” in 1993, seventeen years after he died. The original citation went to Ian Hunter, whose name appeared on the script because Trumbo — like many other writers — had been blacklisted from official Hollywood because he was a Communist.
Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight” won an Oscar for Best Original Score in 1972, twenty years after the movie’s release and with two of the film’s three composers dead. In 1952, Hollywood snubbed Chaplin, deemed to be a Communist sympathizer.
Eight years ago, I wrote a silly column hoping that three people I admired — Stephen Sondheim, Michael Dukakis, and the brilliant writer Jan Morris (transgender before it was fashionable!) — would live forever. The article had the desired effect. They are still with us. Indeed, two years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Sondheim receive the MacDowell Medal in front of a ravening crowd of rabid fans.
So please, please, hand out the medals, the kudos, the warm reviews, the fat cash awards, the approving winks or just the “Gee, I enjoyed that” clap on the back today, this minute, for all the great creators and achievers among us. They won’t be here forever.
The time for your applause is now.Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.