May 22, 2017, NEW YORK, N.Y.—Three prizes honoring historical writing of exceptional literary merit are awarded by the Society of American Historians (SAH) at Columbia University today at its annual dinner at The Century Association in New York City. 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, journalists, documentarians, filmmakers, essayists, novelists, biographers and poets.
The 10th annual Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award for distinguished writing in American history of enduring public significance, given jointly with the Roosevelt Institute, is presented to William Cronon.
William Cronon, a pioneer in the field of environmental history with an unparalleled commitment to public discourse and academic freedom, is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. A Rhodes scholar, Cronon began his career at Yale, where he completed his PhD, and taught in the History Department. Awarded a MacArthur Prize in 1985 for his pathbreaking work in his first book, Changes in the Land, Cronon quickly earned a reputation for his dedication to teaching and to bringing historical scholarship both to the general public and to policy makers. Leaving Yale for his home state in 1992, Cronon brought his talents to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he’s won teaching prizes while publishing more field-defining books, including Nature’s Metropolis.
A past president of the American Historical Association, Cronon is also known and widely admired for his defense of academic freedom. In 2011, he launched a blog called Scholar as Citizen, in which he discussed, among other topics, Wisconsin politics. Members of the Wisconsin Republican Party, citing public records laws, then requested that the University produce Cronon’s email archive. The University complied, taking care to exclude exchanges with students and those with scholars that fell within the domain of academic freedom. Cronon was also supported by the University Senate, which passed a resolution calling for the protection of academic freedom, and by the University Chancellor, who, in a statement urged the faculty to engage in the “continual and fearless winnowing and sifting of ideas,” which is not only part of the academic tradition, but also the way to a better society.
The 60th annual Francis Parkman Prize was awarded to Joe Jackson for his biography, Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, which joins the too-short list of Native Americans whose lives have been recorded with serious scholarship and the full orchestra of the biographer’s art. Black Elk was an Oglala Lakota, born in the Powder River country in 1863, whose life as a warrior, religious thinker and holy man centered on a religious vision he had as a child. The pre-reservation part of his life was related by the Nebraska poet John Neihardt whose research for his 1932 book, Black Elk Speaks, has been an important source for historians and ethnographers ever since.
Joe Jackson, now, for the first time in a comprehensive way, tells us the rest of Black Elk’s story. The canvas is broad, including Black Elk’s travels with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Europe, where he was left behind and lived for a year; his role in the Ghost Dance troubles of 1890, and his conversion to Catholicism. Asked why, he once answered simply, “Because my children have to live in this world.” Jackson’s book is a warm account of Black Elk’s life and philosophy enlarged with much new material about his family, the role of the Catholic Church among the Lakota, and more particularly the Jesuit fathers who did not find it easy to reconcile their own faith with Black Elk’s allegiance to the religious culture of his youth. In the end both sides bent and reached a deeper understanding. It is here especially that Jackson makes an important contribution to the understanding of Lakota efforts to defend and preserve their religious identity, which Black Elk did so much to record and explain.
Jackson, a former investigative reporter, is the Mina Hohenberg Darden Endowed Professor of Creative Writing in the M.F.A. creative writing program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
The Parkman Prize, named for a 19th-century historian widely honored 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 57th annual Allan Nevins Prize is awarded to Isaiah Lorado Wilner for his dissertation, “Raven Cried for Me: Narratives of Transformation on the Northwest Coast of America.”
In this superbly evocative work Isaiah Wilner achieves nothing less than a reversal of the conventional understanding of a crucial moment in the formation of modern anthropology. Wilner’s story centers on the encounter that made Franz Boas famous and provided the basis for the doctrine of cultural relativism becoming the bedrock of American anthropology. Boas’ seminal work, The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), earned him credit for bestowing meaning on inarticulate Indian culture. In fact, wisdom flowed in the other direction. Wilner has discovered an acknowledgment by Boas that much of the work that made his reputation was actually written by George Hunt, a member of the Indian community he studied. In supple prose able to convey both the mystic grandeur of the Northwest “broken coast” that inspired Indian culture and the modernizing realm of western scholarship, Wilner describes how Hunt’s narratives revealed indigenous culture as neither primitive nor fixed in timeless patterns. Rather, as befit the need to adapt to the disruptions forced on it by imperial incursions, it was transformative and diverse.
Wilner’s findings enable him to argue that Hunt’s narrations – the largest such archive of Indian writing in America – exerted crucial influence on Western thought. Wilner’s bold claim for indigenous preeminence poses an utterly unique and compelling challenge to reevaluate basic premises about cultural creativity and values.
Wilner earned his Ph.D. at Yale University under the supervision of Professor Glenda Gilmore and Professor John Mack Faragher, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard 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.
At the close of the dinner, Mary C. Kelley, Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, American Culture, and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, will succeed Tony Horwitz, an author and journalist, to serve as president for the 2017-2018 term. Assuming the vice presidency is Ann Fabian, Emeritus Professor of History and American Studies at Rutgers University.