Publication Date

April 1, 2010

Perspectives Section


Four historians—Robert A. Caro; AHA members Annette Gordon-Reed, and David Levering Lewis; and former AHA president and life member William H. McNeill—were among those honored recently by the conferral of the National Humanities Medals for 2009, at a special ceremony held on February 25, 2010, in the White House.

The National Humanities Medal, awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.”

Robert A. Caro, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his classic biographical study of city-builder Robert Moses, has recently published a magisterial, multivolume study of President Lyndon Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, and Master of the Senate. He is now working on Johnson’s years in the White House. In his remarks after the presentation ceremony, President Obama, while declaring that many of those being honored that day had touched his life in some way, pointed in particular to Caro’s book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which inspired him, he said.

Annette Gordon-Reed (New York Law School), who initially trained to be a lawyer (after graduating from Dartmouth College, she took a law degree from Harvard Law School), went on to produce one of the finest historical studies of recent times. Gordon-Reed’sThe Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (which built upon a previous study of hers,Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy) won the Pulitzer Prize as well as popular acclaim for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings and for recovering the history of slaves in early America.

David Levering Lewis, the Julius Silver Professor and professor of history, at New York University, also started out as a law student, but quickly changed to history, taking an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD in modern European history from the London School of Economics. Well regarded for his books, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair, The Race to Fashoda—all of which displayed imaginative use of sources and new perspectives—Lewis is best known for his two-volume study of W.E.B. Du Bois. Sixteen years in the making, the volumes, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 and W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963 each won a Pulitzer Prize for Lewis. He was also awarded the Bancroft Prize and received one of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowships.

William H. McNeill, an honorary Life Member of the AHA and president of the Association in 1985, is the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Chicago. Most famous for his Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, McNeill is also justly well known for many other works, includingPlagues and People, and The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000. He captured the inspirations and intellectual disillusionments in his long life in his memoir, The Pursuit of Truth.

The National Humanities Medals were also awarded to museum director Philippe de Montebello, philanthropist Albert H. Small, presidential speech writer Theodore Sorensen, and Nobel laureate, Eli Wiesel.

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