Announcing our 2024 Prize Winners

Society of American Historians Awards Paul Chaat Smith, David Waldstreicher, and Sophie FitzMaurice

May 13, 2024, NEW YORK, N.Y.—Three prizes honoring historical work of exceptional literary merit are awarded today by the Society of American Historians (SAH) at Columbia University. 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 – include scholars, independent writers, journalists, documentarians, filmmakers, essayists, novelists, public historians, biographers, and poets. 

●The fifth annual Tony Horwitz Prize honoring distinguished work in American history of wide appeal and enduring public significance is awarded to the Comanche author, essayist, and critic Paul Chaat Smith, Curator, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

In the 1970s, Smith was an activist member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). There, he witnessed brutal government repression—but also, as he bitingly observes, AIM’s own descent into dysfunction and irrelevance. Fleeing to New York City, he began writing about culture and art, and in 1996 published, with Robert Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, the standard book on the Red Power movement even today. 

In 2001, Smith became a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, working first on the permanent history exhibition, Our Peoples, and then turning to Native American art.  Among his major exhibitions are James Luna: Emendatio, conceived for the 2005 Venice Biennale; the 2008/09 blockbuster show Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian; and in 2009, Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort, one of the most visited and acclaimed shows in the history of the museum. His second book, gleefully titled Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, frames issues of Native presence and absence that structure his current permanent exhibition at NMAI, Americans (2018), which takes visitors through deconstructive histories of Pocahontas, Thanksgiving, the Trail of Tears, and the Little Big Horn. 

 Smith’s career is full of such brilliant works of public scholarship, framed in his distinctive style: deeply intelligent, with a dry wit, cynical sense of irony, and taut balance between passion and skepticism. His exhibitions and writings nurture critical thought on the part of visitors and readers alike. For all that he has brought to the intersection of public history and Native American history, the Society of American Historians is honored to recognize Paul Chaat Smith with the Tony Horwitz Prize. 

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 2024 Horwitz prize were Philip Deloria, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Martha A. Sandweiss


●The 68th annual Francis Parkman Prize honoring literary merit in the writing of history is given to David Waldstreicher for The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys through American Slavery and Independence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley richly merits special attention as both a literary achievement and an archival masterpiece, as Waldstreicher managed to achieve both feats in this wonderful book. Inspired by his students’ questions regarding how to read Wheatley’s tone in her poems, Waldstreicher aims to listen to Wheatley’s voice anew and to amplify it for readers today. By setting her poems within her surrounding social, cultural, and political soundscape—that of an enslaved young woman yearning and plotting for freedom, of a brilliant artist communing with philosophers across the ages, of a keen political observer in a Revolutionary moment—Waldstreicher allows us to hearken to Wheatley as we never have before. He successfully marshals a diverse and elusive archive to tell an urgent story about a writer who deserves this biography. While Waldstreicher has the humility to observe “how much we do not know” when we take up such projects, the breadth of his research and the persistence of his pursuit undercovers a life often overshadowed by other towering figures in 18th-century America. The committee noted that Waldstreicher met the unique challenge for a biographer who must capture the eloquence and creativity of Wheatley with imaginative prose of his own. Ultimately the artfulness of The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley compelled our committee to unanimously recommend this book.

David Waldstreicher is Distinguished Professor of History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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 2024 Parkman Prize were Nicole Eustace, Matthew Garcia, and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu.


● The 64th annual Allan Nevins Prize for the best-written doctoral dissertation on a significant subject in American history is awarded to Sophie FitzMaurice for “The Material Telegraph: An Environmental History of the Technology that Wired America, c. 1848-1920.”

In this imaginative, beautifully researched dissertation Sophie FitzMaurice has expanded our understanding of one of the modern world’s most consequential yet understudied developments. The telegraph, by liberating information from the limits of human movement, created a new economic, social and cultural environment that continues to evolve in today’s world of the internet and social media.

Some of the telegraph’s implications come readily to mind, but FitzMaurice has thoroughly explored one not so obvious—its transformative effect on the physical world, from national resources to the material tone of everyday life. In binding the continent into its copper web, its builders bit deeply into the cottonwoods and cedars of the already tree-poor plains and Great Basin, helping to disrupt fragile ecologies and to hasten the subjugation of Native peoples. Among FitzMaurice’s more striking revelations is her detailing of the telegraph’s environmental impact on the nation’s expanding cities, shown most vividly in the dense maze of wires forming the familiar canopy of urban life.

Beyond such tangible effects, FitzMaurice makes the telegraph’s story one of an emerging corporate culture whose priorities and decisions baldly sacrificed vital resources to its interests. More broadly this communication revolution was utterly essential to the mass extraction of national resources, from copper to cotton to timber, and to the unprecedented environmental convulsions that became a defining trait of the age.

Among the pleasures of reading fine history is the discovery of connections among seemingly far-distant changes. Here we learn that the telegraph’s needs led to breakthroughs in ornithology and avian biology, inspired by a classic instance of unforeseen consequences—the threat of woodpeckers to the globalizing power of wires and poles. FitzMaurice’s blending of science, economics, environmental analysis, and revolutionizing technologies makes her dissertation a welcome chapter in the modernization of the nation and the world.

FitzMaurice earned her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley under the direction of Professor Brian DeLay. She is now a Research Fellow, Centre for History and Economics, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge.

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 John M. Crum, for “Headwaters of Empire: Landscapes of Power and Refuge in the Tennessee Valley, 1794-1870” (Rice University). The 2024 jurors were Virginia Anderson and Elliott West. 

● Martha A. Sandweiss, Professor of History, Emerita, at Princeton University, takes office as president of the Society for 2024-2025, succeeding Philip Deloria, the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University. Assuming the vice presidency is Martha Hodes, Professor of History at New York University.