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A Pulitzer Winner Reflects

Daniel Walker Howe is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History, the New-York Historical Society American History Book Prize, a finalist in 2007 for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, and winner of the Silver Medal for Non-Fiction, California Book Awards. Clearly his book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, which looks at the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, is a must-read. In the post below Howe reflects on the experience of winning the Pulitzer Prize and the rewards of being a historian.

On the morning of April 7th, I had gone to the Huntington Library to speak to their docents. When I got home, I noticed a lot of messages on my voice mail, which seemed strange. I accessed them to find friends congratulating me on having won the Pulitzer Prize in History for my book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. So why hadn’t I heard from the Pulitzer people directly? When I asked my editor at OUP, Susan Ferber, she explained that the Pulitzer people issue a press release and post the news on their website before contacting the winners. On May 29th my wife and I will attend the Pulitzer award luncheon at Columbia University in New York City. But the fun has started already, sandwiched in among celebrating a number of family birthdays (my wife and three of our grandchildren were all born in April) and attending the seders of our hospitable Jewish friends.

I guess winning the Pulitzer Prize in History is a dream come true. What Hath God Wrought is my fourth book, and it took ten years to write. When you’ve put a lot of work into something, it’s nice to feel that someone has noticed. If you are an academic historian, you should really be into deferred gratification!

But, of course, most of the satisfaction comes from the work itself. I learned a lot by researching and writing What Hath God Wrought, some it surprising to me. I learned that when an underdeveloped country (such as the United States in 1815) undergoes economic development, the material improvements stimulate moral improvements. Industrialization, better communication and transportation tend to promote literacy, the rule of law, and rights for women. In America they combined with Christian idealism to undermine chattel slavery. Economic development can empower the average person in all sorts of ways, bringing wider vocational choices and opportunities for personal independence. This is an encouraging indication for today’s Third World.

We academic historians usually write for each other, and for the captive audiences in the classes we teach. In What Hath God Wrought I finally decided that it was time to break out of this little corner and address a larger audience: the general, literate, curious public. I find it ironic that, at the very time when academic historians have been trying to be more inclusive in our subject matter, to go beyond politicians and kings and generals, and have more to say about the general public, we have been growing less inclusive in our audience, less likely to speak to the general public. I wish I’d started speaking to them sooner!

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