AHA Members Win Bancroft Awards

Alyssa Kaplan Michaels, May 2004

Three historians—all AHA members—received this year's Bancroft Prizes for their books. The winners of the prestigious prizes are: Edward L. Ayers, for In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 (W.W. Norton & Co.); Steven Hahn, for A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press); and George M. Marsden for Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press).

The Bancroft Prize is awarded annually by the Trustees of Columbia University to the authors of books of exceptional merit in the fields of American history, biography and diplomacy. The 2004 awards are for books published in 2003. The winners were selected from 180 books nominated for consideration.

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger presented the awards to the recipients at a formal dinner April 21 at the University's Low Memorial Library, hosted by the Department of History and the University Libraries.

" The Bancroft Prize singles out for distinction the most influential and scholarly books of the year that address the complexity of our country's past and show how its events and leading figures helped to shape our present world," President Bollinger said. "Without this illumination, we would be navigating today's challenges without a compass."

For the first time since the award's establishment in 1948, the monetary amount of the Bancroft Prize will increase, from $4,000 to $10,000, according to James Neal, Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian at Columbia, who administers the prize. The grant increase will "bring even greater visibility to this prestigious recognition of historical research and writing," he said.

Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863, is the Hugh P. Kelly Professor of history and dean at the University of Virginia. His first book, The Promise of the New South, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Ayers is the founder of an innovative and rich history resource on the American Civil War, "The Valley of the Shadow," and recently coauthored a pioneering electronic article for the American Historical Review. In the Presence of Mine Enemies examines the descent into war of neighboring communities in the Shenandoah Valley. According to the Bancroft jury: "Few books have ever captured as well the connections between home front and battlefront."

Steven Hahn, author of A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration, is the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His book also received the Pulitzer Prize for history this year. His earlier book on the roots of Southern populism received both the Allan Nevins Prize of the Society of American Historians and the Frederick Jackson Turner Award of the Organization of American Historians. The Bancroft jury described A Nation Under Our Feet as "a work of breathtaking ambition and scope [in which] Hahn traces the tortuous route followed by African Americans as they emerged from slavery and traveled through Reconstruction to Jim Crow and beyond."

George M. Marsden, author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He has written numerous books, including The Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. In his biography of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden brings to life the controversial American theologian who was committed to fostering religious sensibilities in the increasingly secular world of his time. According to the competition jury, "Moving easily from the expansive realms of transatlantic thought to the narrow precincts of town and gown squabbles, Marsden captures both the man and his times in all their color and complexity."

For the first time, the Bancroft awards ceremony included recognition of the recipient of the Bancroft Dissertation Award, which supports the publication of a Columbia doctoral student's dissertation. This year's winner—also an AHA member—is David Suisman, who received his PhD in history for his dissertation, "The Sound of Money: Music, Machines and Markets, 1890–1925," in which he explores the birth of music as big business in the United States.

The Bancroft Prizes were established at Columbia in 1948 with a bequest from Frederic Bancroft, the historian, author, and librarian of the Department of State, to provide steady development of library resources, to support instruction and research in American history and diplomacy and to recognize exceptional books in the field.

—Adapted (with permission of the author and the publisher) from an article by Alissa Kaplan Michaels that appeared in Columbia News, the online version of the Columbia Record.