Western History and the Bancroft Prize

With the recent announcement that Ari Kelman won the Brancroft Prize for his book, A Misplace Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (which I profiled last August), some of us Westerners have been talking on social media about the history of Western history titles winning the Bancroft. For those unfamiliar with the Bancroft Prize, it is awarded to 2-3 U.S. history titles per year by Columbia University and is generally regarded as the premier book award for American history. We’re not just talking “the premier award in western history” –  but the premier award for ALL American history. (Traditionally it skewed towards diplomatic history, but less so in recent decades.) This is why it is such a big deal for a field when one of our colleagues wins.

And, we have been winning it a lot lately.
Consider the last 15 years or so.

This is not to imply that Western history is the only field winning a lot. Histories of the Civil War and the South, and others feature prominently as well. But, if you include a number of the American Indian titles or frontier titles that geographically are not traditionally “western” (let us not devolve into the age-old debate of where or when the “West” is) but thematically fit with western history – the list would be even longer.

If you go  back further, Western history made occasional appearances throughout the Bancroft Prize’s list, including the 1948 prize in its inaugural year.

So, what are we to make of this? Can we all just get together at the next Western History Association conference and pat each other on the back? I say we should – mostly patting Ari’s back this time around, and especially because he is too modest and I get the sense that he blushes easily.

I think there is something else here though – something that makes Western history special.

Glance back over that list of winners. In those “Western” titles you can find intersecting sub-fields of environmental history, gender studies, labor history, indigenous history, the history of memory, race and ethnicity, transnational borderlands, social and cultural history, etc…  One reason that I love Western history is that it is so rich and complex with a host of sub-fields of study. I assume lots of other fields have similar networks, but I’m most familiar with Western history. I like that when I go through the book reviews in the Western Historical Quarterly, Montana, or Journal of the West, I find titles of such a diverse and wide range of topics.

I love that “Western” history seems to provide a very big tent under which scholars from all kinds of disciplines and methodologies can get together and interact.

Wasn’t this part of Patricia Limerick’s whole point with the emergence of the New Western History? Do you remember her 4 C’s – nicely outlined in the introduction to Something in the SoilContinuity, Convergence, Conquest, and Complexity. I think all four of these lend themselves to the type of big, important, seminal texts that win prizes like the Bancroft.

  • Does the Continuity of Western history – its ability to draw narratives and analysis through and across such expansive chronologies, era, epochs, rises and falls of empires, etc… – that makes for prize-winning books?
  • Does the Convergence of so many diverse peoples on contested Western landscapes provide particularly rich source material for the kind of messy, gripping, and undeniably significant analysis that wins book prizes?
  • Does Limerick’s analytical tool of Conquest and the tales of conflict between peoples, environments, and empires it examines produce uniquely prize-worthy studies?
  • Does the task of making sense of the Complexity of Western history – with multiple nation-states, indigenous peoples, economic interests, and diverse environments all at play over the course of centuries over multiple geographies as the “West” moves and evolves and transforms – demand recognition and prizes?

Obviously, I’m a bit biased and would answer yes to all four. I’m sure other fields of study could make similar claims. But there seems to be something afoot – a acceleration in the number of Bancroft Prizes being claimed by Western historians. It is one thing when we pat ourselves on the back by giving each other prizes in Western history, but something different when the broader field of American history recognizes the significance of our work. A number from our field has likewise claimed MacArthur Awards, (Ramón A. Gutiérrez, William Cronon, Stephen J. Pyne, Patricia Limerick, Richard White) and probably many other non-Western-specific awards as well. (Why don’t you guys add those in the comments.)

This leads us to another question: Is there a certain “type” of book that wins prizes?
Or more importantly –
Should we put much stock in “prizes” when weighing the quality of a book?

All of this prize talk is dangerous. The majority of the amazing books (which I am desperately trying to emulate) on my shelves are not Bancroft winners, and many haven’t won a single prize at all. I would like to think that my book will be a major contribution to my field, but I don’t anticipate winning prizes. When I look through those most recent Bancroft winners I see a lot of BIG epic tomes – Hyde, Jacobs and Hämäläinen were all immense bricks. Not just long in length, but dense in analysis. But, as evidenced by Kelman’s prize, length is not necessary. A Misplaced Massacre came in at 278 pages, plus notes – a good solid average length. His win, along with that of some of the others, demonstrates that depth of analysis does not necessitate 500+ pages. That gives me hope. If you go through your library, you will likely find that many of your favorite books ARE award winners. Often, however, for more narrowly defined awards. At times, I think those are a more useful gauge at times for weighing which books to assign for university courses. Bancrofts identify books that stand out on a big stage, more specific prizes identify books that stand out in more specific fields, or by more specific measures. (duh – that is the most obvious and “goes-without-saying” thing I have ever written.) In other words – I think we should pay attention to prizes…but lets not have them unduly influence our book selection decisions.

Most award-winners are great books, but not all great books win awards.

Lastly, I must apologize for using so much 1st person plural in this post – lots of “us” and “we.” I am just honored to rub shoulders with some of these people, and heartened by the fact that many of the “great” award-winning Western historians are down-to-earth folks, willing to rub shoulders. (Let’s stay that way – good advice here.) In my experience, Western historians are among the more friendly groups of scholars.

You know…there should be an award for that.

Add your thoughts!