AP NEWS

Yale historian wins Parkman Prize for Frederick Douglass bio

May 7, 2019
This cover image released by Knopf shows "There There," by Tommy Orange. Orange and Frederick Douglass biographer David W. Blight are among this year’s winners of awards handed out by the Society of American Historians. Orange’s “There There,” the acclaimed story of a Native American community in the Bay Area, won the SAH Prize for Historical Fiction. (Knopf via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Yale University historian David W. Blight, author of a celebrated biography of Frederick Douglass, can hardly keep up with all the honors.

In the past three months, Blight’s “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” has won the Pulitzer Prize for history and the Lincoln Prize for an outstanding work about the Civil War, and has been optioned by Barack and Michelle Obama for a Netflix film. On Monday night, he accepted an award that moved and humbled him, the Francis Parkman Prize, presented by the Society of American Historians for a work “distinguished by its literary merit.” The award is named for the 19th century historian and has been given to Robert Caro, David McCullough and Eric Foner among others.

“I always dreamed about the Parkman prize,” Blight said during a ceremony in midtown Manhattan attended by such prize-winning peers as Annette Gordon-Reed, Brenda Wineapple and David Nasaw. “We honor each other because we love our craft.”

The 70-year-old Blight has long been one of the world’s most respected scholars on slavery, his previous awards including the Frederick Douglass Prize for “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.” He was the featured speaker on a night that also cited Tommy Orange’s novel “There There” for excellence in historical fiction, even if his story was set in the contemporary Bay Area, and Jonathan Lande’s “Disciplining Freedom: U.S. Army Slave Rebels and Emancipation in the Civil War” for an outstanding doctoral dissertation. All three books focused on Americans often ignored by historians, from the Native Americans in Orange’s book to the blacks in Lande’s writings who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Blight’s book is more than 800 pages and he has spent so much time immersed in the life of the great 19th century abolitionist that he refers to him as “Mr. D,” opening his remarks by insisting, “I have no illusions that this is about my writing as much as it is about Mr. D’s. My motto has always been “When in doubt, quote Douglass.”

Blight spoke mostly about the importance of words, to him, and to Douglass. He expressed awe at how a man of little formal education became among the most eloquent prose stylists of his time, a gift some of Douglass’ contemporaries noted as well. For Douglass, Blight explained, words were not simply a means of persuasion, but an assertion of identity. “Writing was life to Douglass. It had become his public duty.”

Throughout his talk, Blight joined the mission of Douglass to the mission of historians — to communicate with passion and intellect, to express complicated ideas through “doable words,” to translate the “music” in one’s mind to the printed page.

“In our daily lives our words are all we have,” Blight said. “We should be home reading right now.”

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