One day, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust missed a call from Columbia Provost Alan Brinkley.
“He said he had good news,” Faust recalled. “I said I could use some good news.” So she e-mailed Brinkley, asking him to call her.
Brinkley telephoned Faust late that night to inform her that she had won a Bancroft Prize for her latest book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, published in 2008.
The Bancroft Prize, bestowed annually by Columbia University, is considered by many to be the greatest honor awarded for works of American history. On Wednesday night, Faust was joined for the awards dinner and presentation in Low Library by two fellow historians at earlier stages in their academic careers.
“I was stunned and thrilled and honored,” she said.
Thomas Andrews, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado, Denver, won for his debut book, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. The book situates the labor dispute of 1914 known as the Ludlow Massacre in a social and environmental history of the United States’ pursuit of coal energy.
Pekka Hämäläinen is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of The Comanche Empire, a reinvestigation of the impact of the Comanches on the story of the American Southwest.
“What seems to be happening right now, in the past couple of years, there seems to be a trend of historians asking big questions, tackling big topics,” Hämäläinen said. “I think it’s an academic cycle.”
But in dramatic times, historical topics have taken on greater resonance. Faust came upon the subject of loss in the Civil War while researching her previous book, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War.
She began work on her new topic after the Gulf War while working at Harvard, but found her topic taking on a “renewed salience” in the early 2000s. Although it was difficult to stick with, Faust said she nevertheless found herself struck by “how extraordinary humans are in how they cope.”
Andrews discovered the topic of his book during a dinner of the student staple, tortellini. Imagining his pasta “flying back into the kitchen and disassembling themselves into their constituent parts,” Andrews said he found the idea of bringing together a labor and environmental history.
The period of history he covered was also a “time period of epiphany about where energy came from ... disasters would happen that would remind people how things happen,” he said.
According to Andrews, in the past “it has been easier to be a responsible historian and to ignore the environment.” For environmental historians, Andrews thinks this sign of recognition has been especially gratifying.
With the Bancroft, Andrews noted, “This book is going to be hard to live up to in the future.”
Brinkley, who will step down as provost at the end of this year and rejoin the history department as a full time faculty member, presented the awards to the authors and their publishers.
“It’s an honor every year to present the Bancroft prizes,” he said. Brinkley said that books that have won under his tenure make him “all the more eager to get back to history.”
Lisa Ford received the Bancroft prize awarded each year to a Columbia graduate student. Her dissertation, “Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in Georgia and New South Wales, 1788-1836,” a comparative study of the European encounter with indigenous populations in the Americas and Australia, will be published by Harvard University Press.
Hämäläinen is deep into work on his next book, The Shapes of Power: Frontiers, Borderlands, Middle Grounds of Empire in North America from 1600 to 1900.
For Faust, who sent off the manuscript of This Republic of Suffering the week before assuming the presidency of her university, her own research has taken the back seat to running a university.