Society of American Historians

The Society of American Historians, founded in 1939, encourages and honors literary distinction in the writing of history and biography about American topics. The approximately 300 members include professional historians, independent scholars, journalists, film and documentary makers, novelists, poets, and biographers, all of whom were selected for membership based on the literary excellence as well as the intellectual strength of their writing or presentation of American history.

Prizes and awards

The Society sponsors four awards, which are announced at its annual dinner in May:[1] [2]

  • The Francis Parkman Prize, given annually for the best nonfiction book in American history, is named for the nineteenth-century historian whose multi-volume work, France and England in North America (Boston, 1865–92), is widely praised for its elegant style as well as its historical depth.[3] [4] [5]
  • The Society of American Historians Prize for Historical Fiction, formerly the James Fenimore Cooper Prize, given in odd-numbered years for the best historical novel on an American theme.
  • The Allan Nevins Prize recognizing new scholarship is given annually to the best-written doctoral dissertation on an American subject. The winning dissertation is published by one of the Society's seventeen publisher members, which include both academic and trade presses. The prize is named for the Society's chief founder.[6]
  • The Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award was given jointly with the Roosevelt Institute from 2008 to 2017 for distinguished writing in American history of enduring public significance.[7] [8] Schlesinger was a preeminent historian of the twentieth century as well as a public intellectual noted for giving history a voice in public affairs.[9]


The Society was founded by Allan Nevins and a few colleagues who were critical of what Nevins in a 1939 Saturday Review article called the "pedantic school" of history—academics who, he said, seemed to take pride in writing badly.[10] Nevins, who taught history for over 35 years at Columbia University, was the author of more than 50 books, including an eight-volume history of the American Civil War and biographies of John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Grover Cleveland (which won the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography). A journalist for fifteen years before coming to Columbia (he never earned a Ph.D.), Nevins was the master of a robust and readable style, and continued throughout his life to write for radio and the popular press.[11]


In 1954, in an effort to bring good historical writing to a wide audience, the Society collaborated in establishing the magazine American Heritage as a popular illustrated bimonthly.[12] The Society has co-published several books authored by members, including Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness, edited by Walter Isaacson (W. W. Norton, 2010); Days of Destiny: Crossroads in American History, edited by James M. McPherson and Alan Brinkley (Dorling Kindersley, 2001); and "To the Best of My Ability": The American Presidents, edited by James M. McPherson (Dorling Kindersley, 2000).


The Society's officers for 2019/20 are Alice Kessler-Harris, president, and Megan Marshall, vice president. Its administrative office is located at Columbia University; it is supported largely by annual dues from individual and publisher members.[13] It is an affiliate of the American Historical Association.[14]


  1. Society of American Historians: Prizes. Retrieved on 29 December 2013
  2. Society of American Historians Press Release. Retrieved on 29 December 2013
  3. Noah Sheola, "Athenaeum Authors: Francis Parkman," Boston Athenaeum. Retrieved on 13 January 2014
  4. "The Parkman Family and the Murder: One Historian's Method," PBS's American Experience. Retrieved on 13 January 2014
  5. David Levin, History as a Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman (Stanford University Press, 1959)
  6. Society of American Historians: Allan Nevins Prize Archived 2013-12-31 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 29 December 2013
  7. Society of American Historians: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award Archived 2013-12-31 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 29 December 2013
  8. "Roosevelt Awards & Research Grants," Roosevelt Institute Archived 2011-05-13 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 13 January 2014.
  9. John Hope Franklin, "The Lessons of History," The Nation, 4 December 2006. Retrieved 13 January 2014
  10. Robert Middlekauff, "Telling the Story of the Civil War: Allan Nevins as a Narrative Historian," Huntington Library Quarterly 56 (Winter, 1993): 72
  11. Gerald L. Fetner, Immersed in Great Affairs: Allan Nevins and the Heroic Age of American History (2004)
  12. Mark C. Reynolds, "Golden Anniversary," American Heritage, Nov./Dec. 2004. Retrieved on 29 December 2013
  13. Society of American Historians: About. Retrieved on 7 May 2019
  14. American Historical Association. Retrieved on 7 May 2019
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