The Society of American Historians Announces 2020 Prizes

Awards for literary excellence in the writing of history were given to Robert Colby, Charles King and Frances FitzGerald, who received the inaugural Tony Horwitz Prize.

June 08, 2020

The Society of American Historians (SAH) at Columbia University this week awarded three prizes honoring historical writing of exceptional literary merit. The society, founded in 1939 by Allan Nevins, a journalist and historian, encourages and promotes literary distinction in the writing and presentation of American history. The society’s membership—by invitation only—consist of scholars, independent historians, journalists, documentarians, filmmakers, essayists, novelists, biographers and poets.

This year marked the creation of a new prize named after the society's treasured colleague and former president, Tony Horwitz, who died on May 27, 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 voice was marked by humanity and grace. The prize, supported by The Cedars Foundation, honors an author whose work in American history holds wide appeal and enduring public significance.

Frances FitzGerald: A woman with short brown hair smiling.

The inaugural Tony Horwitz Prize was awarded to Frances FitzGerald, a former president of the Society of American Historians, who 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 U.S. history and civic life. 

FitzGerald's work mixes the keen observations of a journalist with the measured knowledge of a historian. Her famous 1972 book, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, has shaped the ways Americans understood the last years of the Vietnam War, and won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the Bancroft Prize for history and the U.S. National Book Award in Contemporary Affairs. In addition to Fire in the Lake, FitzGerald wrote Cities on a Hill: A Brilliant Exploration of Visionary Communities Remaking the American Dream (1987), Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (2000), Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth (2002) and The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (2017).

Charles King: A bespectacled man with closely cropped brown hair, leaning against a brick wall

The 63rd annual Francis Parkman Prize was 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). The prize, named for the 19th-century historian Francis Parkman who was widely recognized for his elegant prose style, is awarded 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.

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 turned a story of ideas into a true narrative, with vivid, important characters in whom those ideas live and develop.

Gods of the Upper Air, which reviewers 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: Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead. 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. 

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

Robert Colby: A man with brown hair and beard, smiling, wearing a blue suit jacket and blue button-down shirt.

The 60th annual Allan Nevins Prize was awarded to Robert Colby for his dissertation, “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 in its chronicling of 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 the Civil 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.

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).

The Society also announced that Megan Marshall, biographer and Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor at Emerson College, will take 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. Andrew Delbanco, Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University will assume the vice presidency.