Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

The New York Historical Society has awarded its annual book prize to Gordon Wood, professor emeritus of history, for his recently published book, "Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815." As Wood's work, which was published in October, begins to win accolades, he faces a familial rival — his daughter Amy's first book, "Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940," is up against "Empire of Liberty" for the Los Angeles Times History Book Prize.

"Naturally, I'm surprised, thrilled, delighted," Wood said about the Historical Society's prize. "It's not something I expected."

Beyond the citation, the prize also includes a $50,000 award and the opportunity to be honored with a series of formal events, including a black-tie dinner and seminars with other historians and the Society's donors in March.

"The book is really an extraordinary work," said Louise Mirrer, president of the Historical Society. "It's an important story that speaks to tensions that existed at the nation's beginning. It gives you the full flavor of the personalities and philosophies of the men who participated in the birth of the nation."

Wood told The Herald last fall that his book described the tumultuous process of democratizing America. "Many revolutionaries were disillusioned with what they had wrought," he said. "They were surprised by how popular and vulgar society had become. It took a new generation of leaders to come to terms with it."

For Wood, the prize is yet another feather in his cap. Previously, he has won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for works on the American Revolution and its aftermath. Though "Empire of Liberty" spills into the Federalist period, it picks up some of the same themes about the conflict between the visions of early American leaders and the realities of the era.

"It's also kind of a life-work," Mirrer said, "Here, he's crystallized an awful lot of his thinking about the illusions that the founding fathers had."

Wood's book is part of the Oxford series on American history, many other volumes of which won praise as well as prizes. "They choose the very best people to write about the time period," Mirrer said.

Because a committee of historians and history buffs read every book that fits the criteria for judging, Wood's competition was essentially every other history book published in 2009.

Not only was "Empire of Liberty" an important scholarly work, it was also accessible to general readers, which has been a major priority for the Society since Mirrer became president, she said.

"We love history," Mirrer said. "We want as many people as possible to feel the same way about it."

In the last five years, under Mirrer's leadership, the New York Historical Society has grown to be one of the mainstay historical societies in the nation, Wood said.

"We want to be an institution that is open," Mirrer said. "We reinterpret history. We've tackled a lot of topics that other people wanted to sweep under the rug."

Wood said the academic reviews for "Empire of Liberty" likely won't be out for several months. Still, comments from peers have been pouring in. "Some people have different agendas and don't necessarily like everything I say," Wood said. "I'm old enough so that I don't get so moved or depressed by reviews. It's too emotionally scarring to take every critical review seriously."

The press, however, has been responding positively to his work. As one of five authors nominated for the L.A. Times prize, along with his daughter Amy, Wood will fly out to California for a "Hollywood Style" ceremony in April.

In her book, Amy Wood, assistant professor of history at Illinois State University, examines the visual culture of lynching and white supremacy. "My book tries to understand the nature of racial violence," Amy said. "It tries to understand how lynching became socially acceptable."

She also examines the appropriation of lynching photography by the NAACP and the sensationalization of the imagery in Hollywood films like "Birth of a Nation."

Her interest is in visual culture and American studies, and only incidentally in history, she said.

"I fell backwards into history," Wood said, "The humanistic questions that I was interested in were actually really historical questions."

Though her father was influential as a scholar and as an adviser, Amy said her book was very much her own.

"I really was very intent on finding my own way in my work and profession," she said. "But he would talk to me about writing, about what makes good history and what makes good history writing."

Her book is "shorter and more imaginative," her father said, adding that he hopes she wins the award. "She's thrilled to her toes."

Wood, who will be leaving his office at the end of the year after retiring last June, is still busy compiling a Library of America volume on John Adams and editing a collection of his own essays.

"I have no idea what's in the cards for the future," he said.


Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.