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Vol.26, No. 19 Apr. 9, 2001

Bancroft Prizes Offer Three American Stories

By Ulrika Brand

The national passion for gun ownership did not begin in America’s frontier days; William Randolph Hearst, the man who controlled the nation’s largest publishing empire and who decided to use that empire to try to elect himself president, was not a morose egomaniac; and the men who went West to seek gold during the California Gold Rush of 1849 were not the unshaven white men of Bret Harte’s stories, but one of the most multiracial, multiethnic and multinational groups that had yet to assemble within the boundaries of the United States.

These surprising insights can be gained from three outstanding books of American history published within the last year, which have been selected as winners of the 2001 Bancroft Prizes in American History and Diplomacy awarded by the Trustees of Columbia.

The recipients are:

• Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, by Michael A. Bellesiles;

• Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush, by Susan Lee Johnson, and

• The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, by David Nasaw.

The Bancroft Prize, one of the most distinguished awards in the field of history, is presented annually to the authors of books of exceptional merit and distinction in the fields of American history and biography.

The 2001 recipients will be honored at a formal dinner hosted by the Columbia’s department of history and the University Libraries on Wed., April 18, at 7:00 p.m., in the Faculty Room of Low Library. The prizes each include an award of $4,000.

President George Rupp will present the awards. Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia and chair of the history department, and Elaine Sloan, vice president for information services and University librarian, will preside.

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, by Michael A. Bellesiles, explores how and when Americans developed their obsession with guns. The book asks the question: is gun-related violence so deeply embedded in American historical experience as to be immutable? The accepted answers to these questions are “mythology,” says Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University and specialist in American Colonial history.

Through sophisticated research, Bellesiles has put together probate reports on what people owned in the 18th and early 19th centuries, government surveys of gun ownership, and records of the number of guns produced in America and imported. He establishes the fact that, contrary to the romantic idea that the frontiersman relied upon his weapon: up until 1850, fewer than 10 percent of Americans owned guns, and half of those weapons were not functioning.

In the book, Bellesiles shows that the U.S. government, almost from its inception, worked to arm its citizens, but met only public indifference and resistance until the 1850s, when technological advances-such as repeating revolvers with self-contained bullets-contributed to a surge in gun manufacturing. The soaring gun production engendered by the Civil War, and the decision to allow soldiers to keep their weapons at the end of the conflict, transformed the gun from a seldom-needed tool to a perceived necessity.

Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush, by Susan Lee Johnson, offers a meticulously researched and engagingly depicted view of life in California at the time of the Gold Rush of 1849.

Johnson, who began work on this subject as her dissertation at Yale, commented on the image of this period derived from popular culture. “Most think of it primarily as an Anglo-American phenomenon,” she said. Bret Harte’s story The Luck of the Roaring Camp includes characters such as French Pete and Cherokee Sal that hint at the social vortex taking place during this time, but most films and novels on the subject depict a “raucous good time with American men at the center of the story and everyone else at the fringes.”

Not until Johnson’s book has the reading public had access to a fully rounded picture of this influential American event. Her research shows that the Gold Rush, “one of the most demographically male events in human history,” was also one of the “the most multiracial, multiethnic, multinational events that had yet occurred within the boundaries of the United States.

African Americans, both free and enslaved, as well as Chilean, French and Mexican men, Miwok Indians and Chinese of both sexes struggled to make their fortunes alongside Anglo-Americans in the difficult, often frustrating work of extracting gold from placer mines. These miners were followed by French prostitutes, Mexican cooks and Chinese entrepreneurs who provided entertainment, laundry, food and other services for the exhausted miners. Roaring Camp explores how this sudden influx, abut ten times the original local population, created a dense web of economic, political and cultural transformations as the expectations of Anglo miners came into conflict with the aspirations of other groups. Johnson also examines the ways in which men, who formed 90 percent of the population, rethought issues of gender and race as they were confronted with domestic tasks normally delegated to the women in their lives.

Drawing on primary sources and anecdotes from miners, Johnson depicts how this world evolved over time and how our cultural memory of the Gold Rush took root.

The Chief, the first full biography of William Randolph Hearst to be published in 40 years, creates a portrait of a man very different from the one known to most Americans through the fictionalized character based on him in the Orson Welles film classic Citizen Kane.

David Nasaw is the first biographer to be given access by the family and the Hearst Corporation to Hearst’s personal and business papers, including extensive material that was stored in a warehouse in the Bronx and at San Simeon since 1951. He was the first to read letters and documentation of Hearst’s interactions with Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill and every American president from Grover Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, as well as with movie giants Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Irving Thalberg, along with personal correspondence with his family, friends and lovers.

Known to his staff as “the Chief,” Hearst was a man of enormous appetites-for political power, for women and for personal wealth and possessions. He was a workaholic and a hedonist. He was the first American media mogul. By the 1930s he controlled the largest publishing empire in the country, including 25 big city dailies, the world’s largest feature syndicate, his own wire service, the Cosmopolitan Picture Studio, radio stations and paper mills, and he created the nation’s number-one magazine empire. Hearst used his media stronghold to achieve political power unprecedented in the industry.

Nasaw’s new biography addresses questions about Hearst’s relationships, including those with his mistress, Tessie, from his Harvard days, who lived with him for 10 years; his legal wife, Millicent, a former showgirl and the mother of his five sons, and film actress Marion Davies, his companion until death. Nasaw untangles several of the mysteries about Hearst’s life, including why he never graduated from Harvard and why his father gave him control of the San Francisco Examiner when he was only 23 years old. He illuminates Heart’s dramatic shift from the far left to become America’s leading anti-Communist and anti-New Deal activist.

When asked what he thinks about Welles’ portrait of Hearst in Citizen Kane, Nasaw responded: “Welles was a great filmmaker but a bad biographer. Charles Foster Kane ends up as a monstrously unhappy man living in total isolation in his Xanadu. William Randolph Hearst, on the contrary, knew how to have a good time. San Simeon was always filled with light, flowers, gaiety, Hollywood celebrities and the wittiest people in the world. Nobody enjoyed life as Hearst did.”

The Bancroft Prizes were established at Columbia in 1948 with a bequest from Frederic Bancroft, the historian, author and librarian of the Department of State, to provide steady development of library resources, to support instruction and research in American history and diplomacy and to recognize exceptional books in the field. Books eligible for the 2001 prizes, which are awarded annually by the University Trustees, were published in 2000.