Chestertown, MD — In commemoration of George Washington's birthday, Washington College today announced three finalists for the 2009 George Washington Book Prize.
The books, which were chosen from 78 entries, include an epic history of Thomas Jefferson's African-American relatives, a prodigious exploration of Jefferson's literary and intellectual development, and a tale of investment skullduggery and financial meltdown that eerily foreshadows today's headlines.
The finalists are: Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Norton), Kevin J. Hayes's The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford), and Jane Kamensky's The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America's First Banking Collapse (Viking).
The $50,000 award—co-sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington's Mount Vernon—is the largest prize nationwide for a book on early American history, and one of the largest literary prizes of any kind. It recognizes the year's best books on the nation's founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of American history.
"This year's finalists prove that good history can offer insights both timely and timeless," said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold director of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the prize. "The Washington Prize recognizes books that not only vividly recount the past, but also speak eloquently to the present."
The winner will be announced at a gala celebration May 28 at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens in Virginia.
The finalists were selected by a jury of three distinguished historians: Joyce Appleby, professor of history emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, who served as chair; Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland; and Jay Winik, best-selling author and one of the country's leading public historians.
They selected the finalists after reviewing 78 books published last year on the founding period in American history, from about 1760 to 1820—time of the creation and consolidation of the young republic.
In The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed "sweeps away any remaining doubts of the existence of [Thomas Jefferson's] relationship with [his slave] Sally Hemings," and, in the process, "answers important questions about America's founding generation," the jurors wrote. A professor of law at New York Law School and of history at Rutgers University, Gordon-Reed is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), the editor of Race On Trial: Law and Justice in American History (2002), and co-author with Vernon Jordan of Vernon Can Read: A Memoir (2001). She was awarded the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Hemingses of Monticello.
Kevin Hayes's The Road to Monticello is "a superb study" that "mined every conversation with Thomas Jefferson ever recorded" for accounts of the literary and artistic experiences that shaped him, from his undergraduate years at William and Mary until he left Washington "with another eight crates of books" to retire at Monticello, the jurors reported. A Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, Hayes is also the author of A Colonial Woman's Bookshelf (1996), An American Cycling Odyssey (2002), Melville's Folk Roots (1999), and Poe and the Printed Word (2000).
The jurors described Jane Kamensky's The Exchange Artist as a "fascinating window into the pitfalls of unfettered capitalism" that tells the story of Andrew Dexter, Jr., a New England entrepreneur-turned-con-artist who dreamed of erecting the tallest building in the United States—a scheme financed by "a string of giddy banks" and "hopeless overleveraging" whose spectacular collapse "almost hauntingly fits within the zeitgeist of the issues the nation is wrestling with today." A professor of history at Brandeis University, Kamensky is the author of Governing the Tongue (1998) and The Colonial Mosaic (1995), and co-editor and co-founder of the online history magazine Common-place (www.common-place.org). She is also the co-author, with fellow historian Jill Lepore, of Blindspot: A Novel, which was published last year.
The 2009 George Washington Book Prize Jurors
Joyce Appleby, who served as chair of the jury, is professor emerita of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she taught for 20 years. She currently acts as co-director of the History News Service, which distributes op-ed essays by historians to more than 300 newspapers. A noted historian of the early national period in American history, Appleby is a former president of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. She earned her Ph.D. in history at Claremont College in 1966. Her first book, Ideology and Economic Thought in Seventeenth-Century England (Princeton, 1978), won the 1978 Berkshire Prize. Her recent publications include Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Harvard, 2000), Thomas Jefferson (Henry Holt American Presidents Series, 2003), and A Restless Past: History and the American Public (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). W.W. Norton will bring out her The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism in 2009. She has been a member and chair of the Council of the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg and has served on the editorial boards of the American Historical Review and the William and Mary Quarterly. In 2009, the Society of American Historians awarded Appleby the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Award for Distinguished Writing in American History.
Ira Berlin is a leading historian of African-American life and a Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland, where he has also served as Dean of Undergraduates and of the College of Arts and Humanities. He earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Wisconsin in 1970. His first book, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (The New Press, 1974), was awarded the Best First Book Prize by the National Historical Society. He has authored or edited many other books about what he calls the "striking diversity" of life under slavery, including Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Harvard, 1998) and Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves (Harvard, 2003). In 1991, the Maryland Department of Education named him the state's Outstanding Educator. He is the founder of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which he directed until 1991. He has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants, including a Guggenheim and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation. He has served on the Advisory Board of the National Archives, chair of the Council of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and president of the Organization of American Historians.
Jay Winik is one of the country's leading public historians, renowned for his gifted approaches to history. A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal as well as The New York Times, he is the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller April 1865: The Month that Saved America (HarperCollins, 2001), a book that had the rare distinction of becoming an instant classic and which became an award-winning documentary on the History Channel. He is also the author of the bestselling The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800 (Harper, 2007), a USA Today and Financial Times best book of the year. Winik received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University and a Master's from the London School of Economics. He has been a lead commentator on frequent PBS and History Channel documentary specials, and was the Presidential Historian for Fox News's coverage of Barack Obama's historic inauguration. A senior scholar of history and public policy at the University of Maryland, he sits on the governing council of the National Endowment for the Humanities and has served as a trustee on a number of other nonprofit boards, including American Heritage Magazine, the Civil War Preservation Trust, the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the James Madison Book Award, Ford's Theatre, and The Lincoln Forum.
About the Sponsors of the George Washington Book Prize
Washington College was founded in 1782, the first institution of higher learning established in the new republic. George Washington was not only a principal donor to the college, but also a member of its original governing board. He received an honorary degree from the college in June 1789, two months after assuming the presidency. The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, founded in 2000, is an innovative center for the study of history, culture and politics, and fosters excellence in the art of written history through fellowships, prizes, and student programs.
Founded in 1994, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History promotes the study and love of American history. The Institute serves teachers, students, scholars, and the general public. It helps create history-centered schools, organizes seminars and programs for educators, produces print and electronic publications and traveling exhibitions, sponsors lectures by eminent historians, and administers a History Teacher of the Year Award in every state. The Institute also awards the Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and George Washington Book Prizes, and offers fellowships for scholars to work in the Gilder Lehrman Collection. The Institute maintains two websites, www.gilderlehrman.org and the quarterly online journal www.historynow.org.
Since 1860, over 80 million visitors have made George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens the most popular historic home in America. Through thought-provoking tours, entertaining events, and stimulating educational programs on the Estate and in classrooms across the nation, Mount Vernon strives to preserve George Washington's place in history as "First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen." Mount Vernon is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, America's oldest national preservation organization, founded in 1853. www.mountvernon.org.