2020 PRIZE WINNERS ANNOUNCED

The Society of American Historians is delighted to announce three prizes honoring historical writing of exceptional literary merit. The Society, founded in 1939 by Allan Nevins, an American journalist and historian, encourages and promotes literary distinction in the writing and presentation of American history. The Society’s members – by invitation only – consist of scholars, independent historians, journalists, documentarians, filmmakers, essayists, novelists, biographers and poets.

The first annual Tony Horwitz Prize honoring distinguished work in American history of wide appeal and enduring public significance is awarded to Frances FitzGerald. Her work mixes the keen observations of a journalist with the measured knowledge of a historian. FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, (1972), shaped the ways Americans understood the last years of the war in Vietnam. That book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the Bancroft Prize for history, and the U.S. National Book Award in Contemporary Affairs.

Books on history and culture followed this first contribution, including America Revised (1979), a history of history textbooks; Cities on a Hill A Brilliant Exploration of Visionary Communities Remaking the American Dream (1987), on America’s utopian dreams; Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (2000); and Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth (2002).  The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America appeared in 2017.

FitzGerald, a former president of the Society of American Historians, is committed to sustaining public dialogue around issues of current concern. She is widely admired for her careful use of history to illuminate complicated issues, the care with which she writes about those issues, and the audiences she draws into conversations about our history and our civic life. The Society believes FitzGerald’s work embodies its commitment to evocative historical writing wherever it occurs.  

The prize, supported by The Cedars Foundation, honors the Society’s treasured colleague and former president, Tony Horwitz, who died last year. Horwitz, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a former staff writer for the New Yorker, and a distinguished historian whose distinctive voice was marked by surpassing humanity and grace.

The 63rd annual Francis Parkman Prize is awarded to Charles King for Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (Doubleday).

King’s entrancing work is a complex and intellectually supple group biography that takes a sweeping look at the birth of a new discipline—cultural anthropology—in the early 20th century. Gods of the Upper Air tells the remarkable story of a cadre of visionary American academics who sought to employ science and ambitious field research to understand some of the biggest mysteries of human nature, including fundamental questions about race, gender, morality, and sexual identity. With this elegant and wide-ranging study, King has achieved something very difficult and rare in the field of intellectual history: turning a story of ideas into a true narrative, with vivid, important characters in whom those ideas live and develop.

King writes with energetic prose and an engaging curiosity. His book, which reviewers have described as an “intellectual adventure story” and a “scholarly masterpiece,” focuses on the life of Franz Boas, a Jewish refugee from Germany and an idiosyncratic genius, and on several path-breaking women who were his protégés: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria. These mavericks and intellectual trailblazers dared to question the prevailing racial cant of their day, confronting and discrediting the specious theories of eugenicists and defenders of Jim Crow and immigration restriction. In so doing, they played a vital role in making the United States a more equal and just society. Indeed, they helped establish a fundamental political and moral precept of our times: that whatever our skin color, gender, birthplace, ancestry, or culture, we share a single humanity.

King, the author of seven books, is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.

The Parkman Prize, named for a 19th-century historian widely recognized for his elegant prose style, is awarded annually to a nonfiction book that is distinguished by its literary merit and makes an important contribution to the history of what is now the United States.

The 60th annual Allan Nevins Prize for the best-written dissertation on an American subject is awarded to Robert Colby for “The Continuance of an Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South.”

In a field with many fine entries, Colby’s work stood out. The Confederate States of America was born in defense of slavery and died with emancipation, but in between is the largely untold story of African American bodies used to finance the rebellion, perform much of the support work, occasionally take up arms, and hedge the disruptions of war. Colby shows that throughout the four-year bloodbath, the internal slave trade remained the cornerstone of Southern society and the bulwark of the Confederate economy. 

The trade in slaves, this eloquent work of history demonstrates, was the rebellion’s rationale and, its leaders hoped, the pathway to an independent slavery-based nation.  For the families permanently sundered in the in the cause of building a slave republic, however, the psychological costs lasted long after the war ended.

Colby, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill under the direction of Harry Watson, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for American Studies at Christopher Newport University.

 The Allan Nevins Prize, named for the Society’s founder, is awarded annually for the best-written doctoral dissertation on an American subject. The winning dissertation will be published by one of the publisher members of the Society.

Finalist for the Nevins prize was Lucy Caplan for her dissertation, “High Culture on the Lower Frequencies: African Americans and Opera, 1900-1933” (American Studies, Yale University).

Megan Marshall, biographer and Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor at Emerson College, takes office as president of the Society for 2020-21, succeeding Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor Emerita of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University. Assuming the vice presidency is Andrew Delbanco, Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University.