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Tuesday June 15th

It’s no surprise this UNC professor is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

Dr. Fitzhugh Brundage, history professor, at the Unsung Founders monument on McCorkle Place. (Photo by Grant Halverson '93)
Buy Photos Dr. Fitzhugh Brundage, history professor, at the Unsung Founders monument on McCorkle Place. (Photo by Grant Halverson '93)

History professor Fitzhugh Brundage was named as a finalist for a 2019 Pulitzer Prize.

Brundage, former chairperson of the history department and current William Umstead Distinguished Professor, teaches and advises in addition to writing. 

Though well accomplished, he was shocked by his nomination. The Pulitzer releases its finalists and its winner at the same time. Brundage had a suspicion of who the winner would be, but he did not expect to be among the judge’s choices.

His book, “Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition,” explores the relationship between democracy and torture.

"(The novel’s Pulitzer nomination) is a fitting tribute to Brundage’s work," colleague Louise McReynolds said. "And it shines an appropriate light on the department of history and certainly reflects his intellectual and professional commitments." 

The book, originally published in 2018, was in the making for 15 years. Brundage said he juggled it along with his other commitments until he seriously committed to finishing it in 2011.

“I think the biggest challenge was to figure out what I was trying to say,” Brundage said. “...I was interested in how Americans talked about torture and either condemned it or condoned it, and in what circumstance they would do either, so I came to realize I was really interested in the relationship of torture to our ideas of American ideals and American democracy.”

Brundage reached the conclusion that torture is a topic in which one cannot have an ambiguous attitude toward.

“One of the larger goals of my book was to alert people that, you could say cynically, there’s nothing new under the sun, or that because of some of our values that we insist are innate to American democracy, when we talk about torture it tends to fall into a very familiar pattern, and we can predict how it will be justified,” Brundage said.

The book explores the notion that reconciling torture with American Democracy and American values is a challenge to how Americans view themselves.

Brundage says that to Americans, torture was associated with tyranny or savagery. These negative attributes were viewed as extensions of corrupt regimes in Europe, Turkey or China.

“Then when there were circumstances in which some Americans felt compelled or justified in using torture to serve some end, they had to come up with some sort of argument so that they were not either announcing to the world that yes, Americans are in fact savages, or Americans are tyrants,” Brundage said. “Finding out a way to navigate that has always been a challenge, and it’s kind of a recurring challenge.”

Brundage cites the Bush administration as an example. He said that on one hand, there was Dick Cheney advocating for the "dark side" and using some of the methods of the enemy in order to defeat the enemy. Others argued that they never tortured anybody, but would use enhanced interrogation, Brundage said. 

“There’s a recurring pattern of those who have adopted torture making similar arguments to those that the Bush administration made,” Brundage said.

He is known by his students as open-minded and willing to listen.

“His advice is always really clear and it's helpful,” said Caroline Newhall, PhD student and Brundage’s dissertation advisee. “... He always gets right to the heart of things and forces you to as well, and I think it has made me a better scholar for sure. He’s great all around as an instructor.”

Brundage has mastered his work-life balance and fosters an environment for his students to do the same. He understands that students' lives extend beyond their work and he allows them to go at their own pace, Newhall said. Along the way, he provides a lot of opportunity for personal growth.

“He brings a strong work ethic, a bright sense of humor and a vision of what he would like the department to be,” McReynolds said.

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