Monday, November 07, 2005

James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction: a Google Tale

Note: I am no longer keeping this post up to date. For an up-to-date list of James Fenimore Cooper Prize winners, see here.

So this semester I'm teaching a seminar on Historical Fiction, and one of the books we're reading is Tim O'Brien's extraordinary work The Things They Carried.* This being the age of the internet and all, one of the things I did was to google Tim O'Brien and see what information was out there. Now, in O'Brien's standard author bio is the note that his later book, In the Lake of the Woods, "won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the society of American Historians"; one of the sites I hit mentioned that it was a prize for best historical novel. Now I was really interested: in preparing the course I had, of course, googled "historical novel" (see above re: age of the internet) but had never seen a page listing the winners. What was this prize? Who had won it?

Well, information is not ample, at least online. (And with all due respect towards those who worry that starting every search with google is destroying scholarship, I think we can all agree that at least some information is best kept online -- prize winners being a perfectly good example, I would have to say.) The prize is given by the Society of American Historians -- who don't seem to have a web page of their own, at least not one prominent in the googleverse. (Update: Since remedied) (It's not one of the major organizations for historians (which, in the U.S., are the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, for historians of America and historians in America respectively.)) They give four prizes, of which the James Fenimore Cooper Prize is one. But if you google "James Fenimore Cooper Prize" you get mostly sites citing O'Brien's standard author bio! Heck, a Lexis/Nexis search for the last two years brings up precisely one reference (in this review; the reviewer calls the prize "undervalued" -- which I would have to say is probably an understatement.)

I began to wonder if the prize existed, but no, a few other places do mention it. The basic information is that the prize is for best historical novel and is given biennially. This site reports: "A prize of $2500 is given biennially for an historical novel on an American theme that "significantly advances the historical imagination." Publishers may submit novels published in 2003 or 2004 by January 31. There is no entry fee. Send an SASE or email for an application and complete guidelines." (See link for contact info.)

And one page even gives a complete listing for winners of the prize -- a listing on the personal page of one Larry Schwartz, the collection management librarian at Minnesota State University's Livingston Lord Library (he maintains a listing of prize-winning fiction the library has.) But even that page had a low google rank for the search "James Fenimore Cooper Prize". Way to get your prize recognized guys! So, in the interest of promoting this prize, I will repeat the information here.

James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction
Given by the Society of American Historians

1993 Shaman by Noah Gordon
1995 In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien
1997 The Cattle Killing by John Edgar Wideman
1999 Gain by Richard Powers
2001 A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just
Bone by Bone by Peter Matthiessen
2003 Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker
2005 The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

Update: I have heard an unconfirmed report that Thomas Mullen's novel The Last Town on Earth won the prize -- presumably for 2007? -- but can't find confirmation anywhere on line, even on the author's own web site, so I can't vouch for this.

(The link in each case is independent confirmation of the prize. Just to prove that Larry Schwartz and Tim O'Brien didn't cook this up in their back yard one evening.)

The information here seems to suggest that the 2005 award (covering the years 2003-2004) should have been given already; but I haven't found out who the winner is. If anyone knows, email me, and I'll put in an update. Now updated.

* The most useful site on The Things They Carried, incidentally, was an index prepared by the 2001-2002 Advanced Placement Literature class at Carmel High School in Mundelein, Il; I haven't used it extensively, but I've looked a few things up in it and it seems really good. Click on the title for the link.

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