Histories of Hoover, the Mexican Revolution and 1790s New York win Bancroft Prize
By Jennifer Schuessler
A monumental biography of J. Edgar Hoover, a border-crossing history of the Mexican Revolution and a richly contextualized 1790s true-crime story have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.
Beverly Gage’s “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century,” published by Viking, was described by the jury as upending the familiar “villainous caricature” of the former FBI director and replacing it with a panoramic portrait that captures “the 20th-century writ large.”
Reviewing it in The New York Times, Jennifer Szalai described the 837-page biography (the first of Hoover in nearly 30 years, and drawing on a wealth of previously unreleased documents) as a “revelatory” account that “doesn’t rescue Hoover’s reputation but instead complicates it.”
Kelly Lytle Hernández’s “Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire and Revolution in the Borderlands,” published by W.W. Norton, places liberal-turned-anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón and his circle at the center of a story stretching from Mexico City to St. Louis. In its citation, the prize jury called the book, which draws on both Mexican and U.S. archives, a “riveting” account that helps “shift the boundaries of what constitutes American history.”
In “The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America,” published by Henry Holt, John Wood Sweet uses the 1793 trial of the rape of a teenage seamstress to create what the prize jury hailed as “a precise, layered analysis of New York’s social hierarchy just as it was becoming the leading metropolis of the early republic.”
Reviewing it in The New York Times Book Review, legal commentator Tali Farhadian Weinstein praised the book (which also draws on innovative digital mapping tools) as holding powerful lessons about debates over sex, class and justice whose “specters haunt us today.”
The Bancroft, which includes an award of $10,000 per winner, was established in 1948 by the trustees of Columbia University, with a bequest from historian Frederic Bancroft. Entries are evaluated for “the scope, significance, depth of research and richness of interpretation.”
Since the first award in 1948, the prize has mostly been given to work focused on U.S. history. But work on any part of the Americas is eligible, as long as it is written in English or available in a published translation.