The 2023 Prize Winners
We are delighted to announce the winners of our 2023 prizes:
●The fourth annual Tony Horwitz Prize honoring distinguished work in American history of wide appeal and enduring public significance is awarded to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
A renowned and award-winning literary scholar, critic, teacher, and documentary filmmaker, Professor Gates is one of the most recognizable figures in our cultural landscape. He first came to public attention with the publication of his book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, which won the American Book Award in 1989. He followed this with many essays and books written for both scholarly and general audiences. He has tried his hand at historical excavation, recovering a number of lost works of African American literature, including one of the first novels written by an African American.
In addition to publishing many books, Professor Gates has produced numerous acclaimed documentaries dealing with various aspects of American history. Over the course of nine years, his much-celebrated PBS series, Finding Your Roots, has introduced millions around the world to the practice of tracing genealogy through documents and DNA. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Peabody Award and the NAACP Image Award for his documentary The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Professor Gates has also worked tirelessly to build and promote institutions, serving as the director of the W.E.B Dubois Research Institute, which is now a part of the Hutchins Center of which he is also the Director.
Professor Gates has been given many honorary degrees on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the British Academy. He was in the first class of MacArthur Fellows and was the first African American to receive the National Humanities Medal. His accomplishments are too numerous to recount in this citation. Professor Gates is more than deserving of this award for all that he has contributed to our nation and the world.
The Horwitz prize, supported by The Cedars Foundation, honors the Society’s treasured colleague and former president, Tony Horwitz, who died in 2019. 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 jurors for the 2023 Horwitz prize were Annette Gordon-Reed, Andrew Delbanco, and Philip Deloria.
●The 67th annual Francis Parkman Prize honoring literary merit in the writing of history is given to John Wood Sweet for The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America (Henry Holt).
Sweet’s The Sewing Girl’s Tale recounts the odyssey of Lanah Sawyer, a victim of rape in New York in 1793 who took her assailant to court. The narrative is spell-binding and the details cinematic. We follow Lanah through New York’s streets and down to the promenade on the Battery. We see her repair her calico gown with needle and thread and fasten it with straight pins — a reminder that she could not afford more expensive manufactured fasteners. And we watch her wealthy assailant, Harry Bedlow, call on his powerful friends and family to attempt to escape justice.
Along the way, we learn about the lives of New York’s working class and the common law regarding consent and sexual assault. The extraordinary research that supports this finely wrought narrative remarkably remains invisible to the reader, including the geodatabase that Sweet constructed to envision New York in 1793. True to the past and relevant today, The Sewing Girl’s Tale represents the best of historical writing in the twenty-first century.
Sweet, a historian of Early America and the former director of the interdisciplinary Program in Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the author or editor of three other books.
The Francis Parkman Prize is awarded annually to a nonfiction work of history on an American theme published the previous year that is distinguished by its literary merit. The prize is named for Francis Parkman, whose monumental work, France and England in North America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1865–92), was widely praised for its literary elegance as well as its historical importance. The jurors for the 2023 Parkman prize were Gordon Chang, Ada Ferrer, and Claudio Saunt.
●The 17th biennial Society of American Historians Prize for Historical Fiction is awarded to Jane Smiley for A Dangerous Business (Alfred A. Knopf).
In this compulsively readable caper set in Gold Rush era California, a pair of intrepid amateur sleuths dare to go where it seems no one else will. When prostitutes start disappearing from the gorgeously situated, rough and tumble town of Monterey, two young women, Eliza Ripple and Jean MacPherson, use their sharp wits, their insatiable curiosity and all the skill and experience they’ve gained as workers in the sex trade, to track a serial killer and bring him to justice.
Jane Smiley has added another star to her crown as one of the great American writers for today or any day. She has gifted us with fully realized, unforgettable characters we want to keep knowing, a taut plot, and a historical setting that comes alive to all our senses. Dare we hope for a sequel? Or even a series?
Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults.
The SAH Prize for Historical Fiction is awarded biennially in odd-numbered years for a book of historical fiction on an American subject that makes a significant contribution to historical understanding, portrays authentically the people and events of the historical past, and displays skill in narrative construction and prose style. The jurors for the 2023 Historical Fiction prize were Crystal Feimster, James Goodman, and Virginia Scharff.
●The 63rd annual Allan Nevins Prize for the best-written doctoral dissertation on a significant subject in American history is awarded to Samantha Payne for “The Last Atlantic Revolution: Reconstruction and the Struggle for Democracy in the Americas, 1861-1912” (Harvard University).
Payne’s dissertation is an extraordinary historical provocation. Embracing the challenges and reaping the rewards of transnational and comparative history, Payne has written a transformative study of the end of slavery in United States, Cuba, and Brazil, the last 3 slaveholding societies in the Atlantic world.
She asks how the abolition of slavery and the promises of emancipation ended in a new international order grounded on the principle of Black exclusion from democratic politics. Contrary to earlier scholarship, she argues, the United States was not alone in using race to exclude the formerly enslaved from the franchise. Race-based discrimination and the structures of white supremacy emerged across the hemisphere as formerly slaveholding elites and their allies in business and politics destroyed experiments in interracial, rural democracy and brought an end to the promises of an “Atlantic Reconstruction.”
The jury was impressed by Payne’s intellectual ambition, by her use of sources from diplomatic correspondence to the Black press, by her ability to embody abstract ideas in the language and actions of human actors, and by the clarity and grace of her prose. Reading Payne reminds us that discoveries by historians can break your heart, but in the hands of a scholar with humane commitments, those discoveries can sometimes help us imagine routes to a better future.
Payne, who earned her Ph.D. at Harvard University under the direction of Professor Sven Beckert, is an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston.
The Allan Nevins Prize, named for the Society’s founder, is awarded annually to a doctoral dissertation on an American subject that is distinguished by literary merit. The winning dissertation will be published by one of the publisher members of the Society. Finalist for the award was Jordan Howell for “Imperial Crucible: Alcoa and the Transimperial History of American Capitalism, 1888-1953” (Harvard University). The 2023 jurors were Ann Fabian and Mary Kelley.