Archived News

Langum Charitable Trust News

This page is for current and upcoming news of the Trust and its work. Check back here periodically for links to news stories, upcoming deadlines, and late-breaking information.


March 8, 2016:

The Langum Charitable Trust is pleased to announce the honorees of the 2015 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History/Biography.

David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Legal History/Biography, Winner for 2015:

Who Freed the Slaves? The Fight over the Thirteenth Amendment, by Leonard L. Richards (University of Chicago Press), wins the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History for 2015. Richards vividly describes the messy process of the Congressional adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment before its submission to the states for ratification. Many today think that this amendment was simply an inevitable culmination of the Emancipation Proclamation, but that thought is incorrect. Even in the final stage of the Civil War, many opposed an outright ban on slavery. Richards explains this opposition and brings forward forgotten figures, such as Congressman James Ashley of Ohio, who were far more influential in securing the passage of the Amendment than Lincoln, who actually dragged his feet until the last moment before passage. Clearly and engagingly written, Richards has also based his work on sound scholarship exhibited in extensive endnotes. – DJL, Sr.
David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Legal History/Biography, Honorary Mention for 2015:

The 2015 Honorable Mention for American Legal History/Biography goes to Nancy Woloch’s A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s (Princeton University Press, 2015). Professor Woloch meticulously examines the complex political, constitutional, and social forces that contributed to the rise and fall of Progressive Era gender-specific legislation to protect the health and safety of women through minimum wages, maximum hours, and regulation of workplace conditions. The book traces the intense controversy over such laws among advocates of women’s rights, who increasingly believed that they hindered rather than promoted the interests of women by reinforcing gender distinctions and impeding equal rights. The book also explains how protective laws for women helped pave the way for similar measures for all workers during the Progressive Era and the New Deal. – WGR

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January 11, 2016:

The Langum Charitable Trust is pleased to announce the honorees of the 2015 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction.

David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction, Winner for 2015:

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan (Milkweed)

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse is an exquisite gem. Nell Stillman, the protagonist, is an Everywoman. She lived almost her entire adult life in an apartment above a meat market in the small town of Harvester, Minnesota. Widowed at age 24 with an infant, Nell became the third grade teacher of the town’s school for 37 years. Almost nothing in the large scale of life occurred to Nell, yet many chaotic events in everyday life challenged her. Nell’s son returned shell-shocked from World War I; a young woman she nurtured became pregnant and left the small town in disgrace; some in the town blamed Nell for her charge’s disgrace; and Nell herself found love late in life with a fine man who died just before their scheduled marriage.

Aside from her own grit and independence, Nell had three other means of coping with life. The first was her small number of excellent friends. The second was the love she shared with a man over many years, yet blasted away by her lover’s untimely death. The third, and most important, was her love of reading. She read many novelists but fell in love with the novels of the British writer P.G. Wodehouse. She found time every evening to read, and, in a major theme of this book, Nell had the strength to carry on through the transformative power of reading.

The time of Nell’s adult life, c. 1900-1961, saw many historical changes of significant character, for example, numerous improvements in appliances and other implements of women’s work, W.W.I, women’s suffrage, electrification, prohibition, W.W.II, and so on. The book does not neglect these historical events but presents then from the satisfying perspective of what they meant to this little town, and what they meant to Nell Stillman. Highly recommend. – DJL, Sr.

David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction, Honorary Mention for 2015:

The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper)

Inspired by true events and historical figures, the author tells the overlooked story of World War II female war correspondents and their quests to be the first to report the Allied liberation of Paris. This powerful story sweeps the reader into the front lines of battle where conditions for the correspondents are nearly as stark and dangerous as they are for the troops. Well researched and rich with vivid descriptions of wartime France, Clayton skillfully keeps the focus on the characters’ ambitions and personal dilemmas. Yet, the messiness and horror of war never leave the page. Layered with complicated relationships and motives, this gripping story about the correspondents’ quest to record events while dealing with their own quandaries fully engages the reader.

What especially sets The Race for Paris apart is its fresh examination of female correspondents in the front lines. Many novelists have written about World War II, but Meg Waite Clayton brings a new perspective not only to the war but to the risks endured by journalists and photographers. – AW

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April 23, 2015:

The Langum Charitable Trust Is Pleased to Announce the Winners of the Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism for 2013-2014

The bi-annual Malott Prize is awarded to the best book, article, or film that depicts an individual or small group of people striving to make a significant improvement or prevent a significant harm to their local community.

The winner of the 2013-2014 prize is Will Harlan for his book Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island (New York: Grove Press, 2014). This engaging biography of Carol Ruckdeschel vividly describes her fight to save the Georgia island on which she lives from development and its sea turtles from extinction. This has not been a polite society lady’s conflict, but a passionate down-in-the-dirt confrontation with the powers that be, conducted over a long span of years. Untamed combines a topic of considerable interest with vibrant writing. – DJL, Sr.

Honorable mention for 2013-2014 goes to Marta Gutman for her A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). A combination of women’s strong wills and sense of civic spirit led many Oakland, California women and women’s groups to play a dominant role in the founding and shaping of charitable institutions designed to aid children. This sophisticated academic work provides nuanced and innovative study of an intersection between charity and gender at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. – DJL, Sr.

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February 11, 2015:

David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Legal History/Biography, Winner for 2014:

The winner of the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History/Biography for 2014 is Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption, by Nathaniel Grow (University of Illinois Press). This book describes in rich detail the rivalry and litigation between the three American baseball leagues in the early twentieth century: the upstart Federal League and the better-established American League and National League. Through a complex set of personalities, deals, and litigation, all of which Grow well chronicles, the issue of whether the leagues were subject to the federal anti-trust laws was ultimately presented to the United States Supreme Court in the landmark case of Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, decided in 1922. It certainly seemed as though the leagues were anti-competitive. They controlled many phases of baseball including hiring, salaries, movement of players from one team to another, even the sale of teams. Yet Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing for the Court concluded that baseball was not even interstate commerce, notwithstanding the regular crossing across state lines for teams to play one another. This story constitutes the major portion of Grow’s work.

A rushed epilogue traces the later judicial treatment of this exemption, and the impact of collective bargaining, but lacks discussion of Congress’s belated entry into the arena through its curiously limited Curt Flood Act of 1998.

Of particular interest is the skill with which Grow delineates the trial strategies of counsel, discussing several weaknesses in the way the plaintiff’s case was presented. He is kind to Justice Holmes in reminding the reader that the huge apparatus of interstate television, radio, and advertising for baseball simply did not exist in 1922, and it was possible with a straight face to claim that professional baseball was not engaged in interstate commerce. – DJL, Sr.

David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Legal History/Biography, Honorary Mention for 2014:

The 2014 honorable mention for American Legal History/Biography goes to Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the Minnesota Women’s Movement, by Lori Sturdevant (Minnesota Historical Society Press). This engaging biography of Rosalie Wahl (1924-2013), who in 1977 became the first woman to serve as a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, provides a comprehensive account of the life and accomplishments of an important jurist. It also offers significant insights into the struggles of women to erode gender barriers in the legal profession and in politics in Minnesota and throughout the nation during a period of rapid social change. – WGR

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January 15, 2015:

The Langum Charitable Trust is pleased to announce the honorees of the 2014 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction.

David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction, Winner for 2014:

What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins (Twelve)

This novel lyrically revives a significant and intriguing figure in the history of disability. Laura Bridgman (d. 1889) was a celebrity in her lifetime. Stripped of sight, hearing, taste and smell by scarlet fever in her childhood, Bridgman served as a poster child for the Perkins School for the Blind and various intellectual causes such as phrenology and anti-Calvinism.

Laura’s desperate need to command attention and to please others conflicts with her desire for a private life distinct from any larger cause. Through meticulous archival and imaginative labor, Elkins provides Bridgman with an inner life that offers a daring and convincing account of a woman who observes and communicates only through touch. As the author articulates in the appendix, the novel concerns “what might have happened as well” rather than “what might have happened instead.” Following this method, Elkins attends to Bridgman’s parameters for pleasure, longing, deprivation and defiance with a narrative voice that evokes sympathy without sentimentality.

Most of the novel gathers snugly around Bridgman’s life and perceptions, interspersed with the perspectives of those around her. In addition to the host of passing contemporary notorieties, such as Charles Dickens, who visit and comment upon her, Bridgman’s life intersects with prominent figures in more sustained ways. These include her doctor Samuel Gridley Howe, the poet Julia Ward Howe, and even the abolitionist John Brown.

What sets this novel apart is the author’s ability to imagine Laura Bridgman’s world and to give her a powerful narrative voice. With skill and compassion, Elkins portrays Bridgman as a complicated character whose strengths and flaws grow more complex as the story progresses. Historical details enrich the story, and the author deftly exposes the care and treatment of the disabled during the 1800s. This is American historical fiction at its best. – VL

 

David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction, Honorable Mention for 2014:

Rush of Shadows by Catherine Bell (Washington Writers’ Publishing House)

Small farmers in the coastal hills of Northern California’s Sacramento Valley and the indigenous Digger Indians they encountered in the 1850s are the moving forces in this sparsely but beautifully written novel. While there are fine passages describing the beauties of the land and the methods adopted by these pioneers for shelter, food, and formation of communities, the major theme is the relationship of these farmers with the local Indians.

The Indians of Northern California were wholly unlike their heartier cousins of the plains or the deserts. Americans referred to them as “diggers” because the beneficent California climate permitted them to thrive by gathering up roots and seeds coupled with minimal hunting. Their primitive technology rendered them absolutely defenseless against the invading hoard of Americans who, wanting their lands for conventional farming, raped and murdered the Diggers, stole their lands, and herded the survivors onto miserable reservations.

The book’s chapters are told from the perspectives of different characters, although dominated by Mellie, wife of an American settler, and Bahé, granddaughter of the Indian band’s shaman. Tension mounts throughout the book, and the ultimate outcome comes dramatically but without sentiment. The characters are drawn well, two of them beginning with strong anti-Indian feelings that soften over time. In the hands of a lesser writer, Mellie could have become a stock character of a strong woman who saves the tribe from removal. Here, more sensitively and more realistically, her influence is smaller and more personal: providing medicine for one Indian child, a job for one woman, and a warning about an impending capture. Bahé is even more delicately drawn as a strong woman who realizes the futility of fighting the white man, but who draws on her inner strength as the new spiritual leader of her band to accommodate and preserve as much of the old ways as is possible.

This is truly fresh material. The Trail of Tears is well-known, but Indian removals in California are relatively obscure. The characters are well-drawn and the descriptions vivid. A beautiful book. – DJL, Sr.

 

David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction, Director’s Mention for 2014:

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Pantheon Books)

While The Moor’s Account does not fully meet the requirements for the prize, the Director commends this excellent novel.

“It was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage – and I was at the edge of the known world.” So begins this extraordinary, pitch-perfect work of historical fiction about the Narváez expedition in Florida. The narrator is Mustafa al-Zamori, a slave from Azemmur whom the Castilian explorers call Estebanico. Mustafa, one of four expedition survivors and who is haunted by his own demons, tells an unvarnished account of the exploration of Florida and the Southwest. The 600-man expedition (1528-1536) is a disaster from the moment the ships arrive on the Gulf Coast. The leaders engage in power struggles, the expedition gets lost, and within a few years all but four men are dead from accidents, starvation, and disease. These survivors cross all the way along the southern border of the present United States, from Florida to Mexico. The expedition’s encounters with native peoples are equally harrowing. Mustafa’s account painfully foreshadows the future of Native Americans.

The novel is rich with moral quandaries about what people will do to survive. The author’s attention to historical and ethnological detail is remarkable as is the scope of the story which covers Africa, Spain, and the New World, including Mexico. Yet the details never slow the pace or the excitement of the story.

What especially sets The Moor’s Account apart is the author’s ability to bring alive an extraordinary piece of history told by an overlooked narrator. – AW

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March 31, 2014:

Langum Prize for American Legal History/Biography for 2013

The winner for 2013 is Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle over Sexual Expression, by Whitney Strub (University Press of Kansas). This long title is perfectly appropriate since the book covers far more than its principal case, although it does discuss Roth well and in detail. However, the book also analyzes American attitudes and law regarding obscenity from our colonial times to the present. In doing so its scope extends well beyond the time of Roth in 1957 to porno chic and the disparate feminist interpretations of pornography of the 1960s and 1970s and beyond to the present. A great virtue of Strub’s work is that he brings in a great variety of background factors, including changing social mores and even changes in technology, to inform our understanding of changes in legal norms regarding obscenity, a legal term, and pornography, a cultural construct. – DJL, Sr.

 

Honorary Mention Langum Prize for American Legal History/Biography for 2013

The 2013 honorable mention for American legal history goes to Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy (University Press of Kansas). The author, Alexander Wohl, has thoroughly and engagingly explained how Tom C. Clark and his son Ramsey Clark made enduring contributions to American constitutional law, especially in cases involving civil rights, free speech, personal privacy, and presidential power. Both were united in their dedication to the freedom of citizens from intrusive government, despite differences that reflected their personalities, interests, and the times in which they worked. Wohl shows how the elder Clark accomplished many of his goals through established institutions while his more iconoclastic son often initiated bold actions to challenge injustices. Wohl’s highly contextual work offers fascinating insights into the Supreme Court during Tom Clark’s tenure from 1949-1967 and the Johnson Administration during Ramsey Clark’s service as U.S. attorney general from 1967-1969. – WGR

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January 22, 2014:

The Langum Charitable Trust Releases Readers Guidelines for the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

The Langum Charitable Trust has posted the guidelines used by our readers and by our selection committee, giving more flesh to the basic requirement that our winning novel must be both excellent history and excellent fiction. Click here to review our guidelines.

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January 22, 2014:

The Langum Charitable Trust Is Pleased to Announce the Winners of the 2013 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction.

We are pleased to announce the winner of the 2013 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction: Gary Schanbacher for his Crossing Purgatory (Pegasus Books). Honorable Mentions include Pamela Schoenewaldt for her Swimming in the Moon (Morrow) and Christine Wade for her Seven Locks (Atria). Click here to read complete commendations.

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July 18, 2013:

The Langum Charitable Trust is Pleased to Announce the Shortlist of the First Half of 2013 for the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom (Grove Press)

Crossing Purgatory by Gary Schanbacher (Pegasus Books)

Seven Locks by Christine Wade (Atria Books)

The Son by Philipp Meyer (Ecco)

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July 10, 2013:

Once Again Random House Censors Books

In 2008 the publisher Random House self-censored for political reasons by refusing to publish Sherry Jones’s The Jewell of Medina, even though it had thoroughly vetted the manuscript and paid a substantial advance. The reason was political: the book might offend some in the Muslim community. Five years later it has committed the same offensive act by backing out of the publication of the latest cookbooks of Paula Deen, the Southern food maven.

A few weeks ago Paula Deen admitted in a deposition that thirty years ago she had used the infamous n-word. Immediately, the political correctness crowd denounced her. Business after business tossed red meat to this mob while it undulated in a frenzied dance, chanting “She used the n-word! She used the n-word!” The cable company that carried her cooking show dropped her, as did many retailers who carried her products or were her sponsors, such as Sears, J.C. Penny, Walgreen, Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot.

It would seem that this constituted vastly disproportionate punishment for a one time use of the n-word thirty years ago. Yet it really did not touch upon the work of our foundation until late June when Random House determined to yank the publication of her latest cookbook, Paula Deen’s New Testament, scheduled for October 2013 as well as four additional books for which she was under contract.

Her book was running very high in advance sales; indeed, it was the number one seller on the Amazon list of advance sales and continued so well after the n-word revelation. We cannot pretend that it was a fear of economic backlash that motivated Random House. It was simply a political decision to appease a particular mob and an act of cowardly self-censorship. This represents a threat to all literature, not merely cookbooks.

Back in 2008 we imposed a boycott on Random House for consideration of their books for our prizes until The Jewel of Medina was published by a different publisher. Our action received a lot of notice, both of praise and criticism, but the only critique that made sense to us was that it might be unfair to authors whose books were already in the process of publication by Random House. So today we announce a two-year boycott on all imprints of Random House/Penguin for consideration for our prizes, but to take effect prospectively, on July 1, 2014, all books published prior to that date remaining eligible.

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April 22, 2013:

The Langum Charitable Trust Is Pleased to Announce the Winners of the Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism for 2011-2012

The bi-annual Malott Prize is awarded to the best book, article, or film that depicts an individual or small group of people striving to make a significant improvement or prevent a significant harm in their local community. For the years 2011-2012 two works commanded our attention, and it was very difficult to compare the qualities of their depictions of community since one is a book and the other a film. After agonizing for several weeks, we ultimately determined to award the prize to both.

One winner of the Malott Prize for 2011-2012 is Jay Erskine Leutze for his Stand Up that Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail (New York: Scribner, 2012). Belview Mountain in the North Carolina Appalachians was threatened by a developer’s desire to gash and level a large portion of the mountain to extract granite to be made into gravel. A small group of local people, worried about the stability of their homes from blasting and the impact of the development on their water and way of life, entreated the author, a non-practicing lawyer, to spearhead the opposition to the development, for which a permit had already been issued. Leutze took the lead initially, but wisely later hired seasoned lawyers with political connections to take over the struggle.

Leutze clearly and engagingly describes all the levels of bureaucratic and courtroom struggle his little band went through, but it would be wrong to think of this book as a mere summary of legal fortitude. He spends equal attention to the persons and personalities of the mountain folk who are struggling to save their homes and community and writes of them and their culture with a sympathetic and light touch. The discovery that the eyesore to be created by the development would be clearly visible from the Appalachian Trail significantly aided the equities of their cause.

Adele Malott was convinced, as she wrote herself, that “at democracy’s heart are people who find themselves agitating for change to make things better, repair something that has broken down or create new solutions for old problems. Such changes do not come easily. Nor without pain.” She was fascinated by the motivations of quite ordinary people who “found themselves in circumstances that pulled them out of the crowd and caused them to speak up,” even as neighbors judged them busybodies and politicians judged them troublemakers.

She wanted the prize-winning accounts to focus on activists, even more than their causes, to show us “what pushed him/her to get off the coach and spend hours at countless meetings trying to be heard, trying to persuade people to help pick up the load and move toward a solution. We should be seeing things through this activist’s eyes.” And in Stand Up that Mountain we do see this in a first-hand account by the primary activist himself, through all the twists and turns of tactics, hearings, and personalities, but written with a light-handed entertaining touch.

Other winners of the Malott Prize for 2011-2012 are Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz, the makers of The Interrupters (Kartemquin Films, 2011), a film that tells the story of CeaseFire, now re-named Cure Violence, a private non-profit organization that seeks to minimize street violence in the toughest neighborhoods of large urban communities. Cure Violence regards violence as an infectious disease, and with that premise it (1) detects and interrupts outbreaks of the disease, i.e., shootings and other fights; (2) determines what individuals are at risk for perpetrating violence, e.g., recent releases from prison, and attempts to modify thinking and behavior to reduce the probabilities of violence; and (3) tries to change underlying social and behavioral norms on the community level.

To accomplish these objects Cure Violence recruits young men and women to intervene in situations that might create violence and persuade those involved of the futility of that course of conduct. They also work with persons with very high risk, teenagers recently ejected from schools or homes or released from prison or whose sibling has recently been killed in street violence, trying to alleviate the poverty, alienation, or anger that might lead to violence. Cure Violence, tries to recruit its Interrupters from among young people who themselves have past histories of addiction, violence, and prison to increase their street credibility among those they serve.

The film The Interrupters spends some but little time with the philosophical premises of the organization, and instead focuses on three specific interrupters, a Black Muslim woman, and two men, one black and other Hispanic, and their work in Chicago neighborhoods. The strength of the film is that the viewer is shown detail about these very personable protagonists. We meet their families, and learn of their own backgrounds and what it was that turned their lives from violence. Then we see their actual work with disaffected youth who seem primed for shooting someone or other anti-social activity. We see many successes and a few failures. But the interrupters themselves stay upbeat and focused on their work. The viewer wants very much for them to succeed.

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January 31, 2013:

2012 Langum Prize in American Legal History/Biography:

The winner of the 2012 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History or Biography is Samuel Walker for his Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). This work is a tour de force that that discusses virtually every significant event, judicial decision, or government activity affecting civil liberties in America from 1913 (Wilson’s inauguration) to 2009 (Obama’s inauguration). Organized primarily by Presidential actions or reactions, the author analyzes each President by his civil rights record, and, finding them all to be lacking, concludes with the subtitle of the book, that on the whole they have been poor custodians of Americans’ civil liberties.

This is no dry discussion of changing legal doctrine. As appropriate, Walker is careful to bring to the discussion how changes in the economy, public opinion, social conditions, wartime fears, and protests have been inextricably involved with the expansion and contraction of civil rights. He brings a generally liberal and civil-libertarian outlook to his work, and is candid to disclose that he has had thirty years of involvement with the ACLU. Nonetheless, he is scrupulously fair. Where Presidents generally thought of as conservative did something favorable to civil liberties he describes it and renders praise. An example of this is President Harding’s pardon of Eugene Debs, a notable victim of Wilson’s World War I suppression of free speech. Likewise where Presidents generally thought of as liberal did something unfavorable to civil liberties, he describes that too and criticizes. An example of this is President Truman’s Loyalty Program and its use of guilt by association. He makes a clear case that disrespect for civil rights is nonpartisan.

General readers should not be discouraged by the footnotes being placed where they should be positioned for convenience of reference: at the foot of each page. Although many facts and much history are packed within this 510 page volume, Walker has written an extremely readable account. DJL, Sr.

 

2012 Honorary Mention Langum Prize in Legal History/Biography:

Honorable mention goes to R. Kent Newmyer for his The Treason Trial of Aaron Burr: Law, Politics, and the Character Wars of the New Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). This short well-written volume focuses, as implied by the title, on the trial of Aaron Burr for treason and high misdemeanor. Newmyer only briefly discusses background: the confusing facts of the alleged conspiracy to break off western portions of the nation, the motivations for Jefferson’s denunciation of Burr, or the puzzling aspects of the prosecution (especially why Burr was not charged with a much more easily proven violation of the Neutrality Act in addition to the difficult Treason and High Misdemeanor charges). Instead, Newmyer concentrates on the pretrial activities and trial itself. Although the trial did much to elucidate the American law of treason, it cannot be said to have resolved the factual issues that lay behind the conflict. What Burr was really up to may always remain shrouded in mystery, and in our confusion we can take some comfort with the fact that it was equally confusing to the contemporaries of the events. DJL, Sr.

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January 10, 2013:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction for 2012

The Cove, by Ron Rash (New York: Ecco, 2012). This powerful and atmospheric novel takes place in the North Carolina mountains during the final year of World War I. The story revolves around a sister and brother, Laurel and Hank, whose family home in an isolated cove is darkened by cliffs, ridges, and local superstitions. Both are wounded people. Hank lost part of an arm while serving in the army in France. Laurel has a birthmark on her shoulder and neck, and is feared and ostracized by the community. Their lives change when they take in a stranger who plays the flute but does not speak.

The Cove is American historical fiction at its best. The writing is lyrical and the novel is rich with symbolism, yet the prose does not overshadow the story. Rash’s use of regional language adds depth to the characters and never strays toward ridicule. Small details – a flour-cloth dress, a hearing machine with wires and a dial, wagon and automobile tracks on the same road – speak to time and place. With a light touch, Rash balances anti-German sentiment and America’s increasing impatience with the war. The sense of doom established in the prologue heightens with each ensuing scene until the novel ends with a satisfying conclusion.

There is much to commend about The Cove. For the purposes of this prize, its remarkable achievement is the insight into a little known historical event: the seizure of the German ocean liner, the Vaterland, and the placement of its crew in a North Carolina internment camp. A.W.

 

David J. Langum, Sr. Historical Fiction Honorable Mention for 2012

Slant of Light: A Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War, by Steve Wiegenstein (Saint Louis: Blank Slate Press, 2012). This well-written debut novel describes the travails of a utopian colony in southern Missouri during the late 1850s. At a deeper level it is also a meditation on the decline of order – social order, sexual order, and political order – all clearly delineated but with no causal explanation other than “homo homini lupus.” Man is a wolf to man, and probably an ample reason.

James Turner is an itinerant lecturer, expounding on the merits of a proposed utopian community to be founded on the principles of democracy, balance, trust, openness, and harmony. A farmer in southern Missouri offers him land, and Turner and his small band of followers begin their agricultural settlement. Turner’s wife Charlotte at first is a somewhat quiet character, but over time and tribulations becomes more forceful. Soon a philosophical Adam Cabot, an abolitionist, joins their settlement. Much of the novel traces the community’s efforts, failures, and successes.

Social order, at least as defined by the founding principles, breaks down very quickly. Largely because of the recalcitrance of a small number of the colonists, Turner increasingly imposes his will in community meetings, employing deception, secrecy, and sometimes force. Sexual order is threatened by Charlotte’s valiant struggle to keep her deep attachment to Adam on a platonic basis. James succumbs fairly easily to the allurements of a young colonist, Marie, and is caught by his wife.

The collapse of political order arrives with the coming of the Civil War. Missouri is a border state with bitter feelings on both sides of secession and slavery, and also the need to fight for either. The membership of the colony itself is divided. Turner struggles to maintain the group’s neutrality, but ultimately more and more members leave the join the fighting, and the settlement is left in virtual suspension, with only Charlotte to hold on. Wiegenstein handles the coming of the Civil War adroitly, refusing to foreshadow events. The reader hears of incidents leading to the war only as the community becomes aware of them.

Congratulations are due to Wiegenstein for this lovely book on a neglected border state and also are due to the new small press that published it. D.J.L., Sr.

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August 9, 2012:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces First Half of 2012’s Shortlist for the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

The Cove by Ron Rash (Ecco Press).

A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Atlantic Monthly Press).

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February 12, 2012:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winners of the 2011 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History

Two books won the Langum Prize for 2011.

Stuart Banner’s American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own (Harvard University Press, 2011) provides a fascinating account of the evolution of concepts of property in American law. Banner demonstrates that definitions of property that Americans today take for granted were not inevitable and resulted from complex economic, political, and social forces. Banner guides the reader through a wide array of types of property, including news, airwaves, phonographic sounds, trademarks, human body parts, publicity, and cyberspace. He also discusses the development of law regarding zoning, condominiums, and public takings of private property, along with the rise and fall of social spending programs as entitlements. Extraordinary in its depth of research and breadth of scope, Banner’s book is so engagingly written, particularly in its wealth of anecdotes, that a general reader might not fully appreciate its importance as a work of scholarship.—WGR

Inside the Castle: Law and the Family in 20th Century America (Princeton University Press, 2011), by Joanna L. Grossman and Lawrence M. Friedman, describes the recent transformation of American family law in its many facets: ceremonial marriage, common-law marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, divorce, spousal and child support, child custody, elder law, adoption, and even parentage itself in our age of sperm donation, egg donation with gestational surrogacy, and posthumous conception. Grossman and Friedman present law as a dependent variable, family law changing in response to the massive change in social mores during the twentieth century. One dominant theme is the decline of the traditional family, where rights and duties were dependent on the status of the family members (husband, wife, or child), and the rise of much more complex and often short-lived relationships that emphasize the fulfillment of each person’s individualism. A second theme is the transfer of many traditionally familial responsibilities to the government. The authors present an abundance of information in a very readable style made even more accessible by the inclusion of numerous short interesting vignettes of real people and cases.—DJL, Sr.

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January 13, 2012:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the 2011 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (New York: Knopf, 2011). This short, poetic book describes the experience of the Japanese “picture brides” who were brought over in the very early part of the 20th century to marry Japanese men working in the United States, mostly as farm laborers. The writing is beautiful, and, although the book is sparse, each word carries weight. The Buddha describes their passage over, their meetings with their new husbands, and their difficult relationships with Anglos. It follows them working on the farms and through the Depression, and takes them up to their rounding up for imprisonment in the American concentration camps of W.W. II. The Buddha has an unusual style. It describes a particular person or situation in two or three tight third person sentences, and just as often does the same in the first person plural (“we” or “one of us”). The reader at first feels disoriented, but quickly this babble of individual situations and persons blends together into a harmonious chorus.

American Historical Fiction Honorable Mention for 2011:

Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing (New York: Viking, 2011). The mid-seventeenth century Massachusetts of Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge provide the settings for this exquisitely and lushly written novel that explores the clash of cultures between the Puritans and the native Wampanoag inhabitants. Caleb, the son of a local Indian chief, wishes to learn the white man’s ways and is educated by a liberal Puritan minister on Martha’s Vineyard. Bethia Mayfield, the minister’s daughter, meets Caleb, and the story evolves from her viewpoint. Bethia and Caleb form a close and secretive relationship, always platonic, around their mutual affinity for books and knowledge, nature, and each other’s culture. Bethia is especially discontent with the meager educational opportunities available to her as a girl and cleverly contrives to use all the situations in which she finds herself to clandestinely acquire knowledge. There is a good amount of history in this work, but it is interwoven and well-blended with the literary character of the novel. That a Wampanoag Indian named Caleb graduated from Harvard College in 1665 is fact, but the balance of the book is beautifully written fiction, albeit well-grounded in historical research.

Director’s Mention for 2011:

This is an unusual Director’s Mention, since the praise is directed to publishers as well as authors. I noticed this year an unusual abundance of good historical novels published by small and regional presses. In the hope that this may be the beginning of a trend, I would like to mention four such novels published in 2011, alphabetically by author. John M. Archer, After the Rain: A Novel of War and Coming Home (Gettysburg, PA: Ten Roads Publishing, 2011) was excellent enough to be on our shortlist, and is more fully described there. It concerns a wounded and discharged Union line officer’s return to home, plagued by guilt over his comrades’ deaths and what we would today call “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The numerous photographs add much to the account, but must have added considerably to the production costs. James Hoggard, The Mayor’s Daughter (San Antonio, TX: Wing’s Press, 2011) is set in a small north Texas town during the 1920s oil boom. It is an account of conflict between a young woman and her parents over her choice of husband, and although this is a well-trod theme, the book is well-written and ends more violently than most of these conflicts. Hugh Nissenson, The Pilgrim: A Novel (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2011) tells the story of a Calvinist who comes to Massachusetts from England in 1622. Torn up by the strictures of Predestination, the protagonist is haunted by worries that he does not measure up and is not one of the Elect. The book offers a fascinating look into the interior world of the Massachusetts Calvinists. Sheila Ortiz-Taylor, Homestead (Midway, FL: Spinsters Ink, 2011) is set in Florida and Georgia and concerns a large lower middle-class family during the 1920s and 1930s. In times of great uncertainty, when the family is forced to make many changes and suffers much adversity, this book is a testament to the resiliency and staying power of women. Shirley Reva Vernick, The Blood Lie (El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011) is a well-written young adult novel. It describes an actual incident in a small town of upstate New York in the late 1920s, when a young Jewish boy was accused of murdering a young girl, who had become lost but was quite alright, for the use in supposed religious ceremonies.

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September 14, 2011:

The Langum Charitable Trust Begins Shortlist Program

We have just begun a shortlist program. While hopefully this may generate some interest and excitement, we have a practical problem to address. In the past, paperback editions have followed hardback publication by an almost predictable one year interval. Except for books published in January or February this made it possible to know the winner before its publication in paperback and allowed publishers to use a seal such as “Winner of the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction” on the paperback cover. That was helpful to readers, publishers, and the Langum Trust. Due to the impact of e-books, paperback editions of hard cover books are coming out more quickly, and it may become impossible to know that a particular book is the winner before the paperback edition appears. However, we intend to issue shortlists for books published January 1 through June 30 in July (in future years) and for the second half of the year in January, with the final winner announced in February. Therefore the status of being shortlisted is something that publishers could put on their covers, and this might be particularly useful for books published early in the year whose paperback edition will probably appear before a final determination is made of the year’s winner.

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June 7, 2011:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the Gene E. and Adele R. Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism for 2009-2010

The Langum Charitable Trust is pleased to announce that the winner of the Gene E. and Adele R. Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism for 2009-2010 is Tapped, a documentary film available on DVD. This beautifully-made film, directed by Stephanie Soechtig of Atlas Films, develops a disturbing theme of deep irony through stunning visuals and interviews with community activists.

We well might think that there could hardly be a product more benign than bottled water. Or that no more healthful refreshment could be possible than the sparkling water shown on the bottles and industry advertising. But we see through Tapped that this commonplace thinking is naïve. Ironically this product, so seemingly healthful and benign, has significant adverse consequences.

Bottled water has an adverse impact on public health through the impact of certain chemicals used in the manufacture of plastic bottles. Bottled water also has an adverse impact on the environment because of the nearly indestructible plastic bottles containing the product, casually discarded by consumers. Finally, bottled water has an adverse impact on local communities and their citizens by the massive plunder of small lakes and streams by corporate giants to obtain the public water that they then sell.

This film will make one think twice before reaching in the refrigerator for another bottle of water. – DJL, Sr.

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March 1, 2011:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the 2010 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History

The winner of the 2010 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History is Stephen C. Neff for Justice in Blue and Gray: A Legal History of the Civil War, published by the Harvard University Press. The American Civil War generated a complex tangle of legal and constitutional issues, which generally are overshadowed by the massive literature on the political, military, and economic aspects of the war. In Justice and Blue and Gray: A Legal History of the Civil War, Stephen C. Neff provides a fascinating account of how the President, Congress, and the courts grappled with an array of novel questions involving separation of powers, federal power, and international law.

Neff analyzes the legal status of the Confederacy; the power of the federal government to suppress the rebellion; the constitutionality of the widespread suppression of civil liberties; the legal aspects of the abolition of slavery; and problems arising from the confiscation and destruction of private property and the occupation of large parts of the Confederacy. Neff also explores the constitutional dimensions of the hugely expanded role of the federal government through legislation providing for military conscription, an income tax, and the issuance of paper money. Neff demonstrates how the American legal system provided an essential framework in which the nation could achieve its military and political goals, and he concludes that the legal system’s robust ability “to cope with so challenging a catastrophe says much for the maturity of the country at that time.”

An excellent resource for scholars, Neff’s book also is highly accessible to general readers, especially since it provides lucid explanations of legal concepts and terminology and is written in a vivid and engaging manner. — WGR

Legal History Honorable Mention for 2010:

Honorable Mention is made to Steven Lubet for Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Lubet studies the rendition trials of runaway slaves in the northern states and the prosecution of “rescuers” who interfered with that process during the decade of the 1850s. He describes in detail the successive trials of Castner Hanway, Anthony Burns, and Charles Langston, making the point of how lawyers increasingly over the years of the decade appealed to the “higher law” as superior to that of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Lubet maintains in this clear and well-written book that the enforcement of the Compromise of 1850 and its stepped-up enforcement of slave recaptures hardened the positions of both North and South, far beyond the rather minimal importance of the actual number of escaped slaves. To the North, vigorous renditions made it seem as though slavery was brought within their own “free” borders, while to the South the efforts of Northerners to “rescue” their escaped slaves was an insult to its institutions and to that species of property that had been guaranteed to it in the Constitution itself. — DJL, Sr.

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January 12, 2011:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the 2010 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

Ann Weisgarber for The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (Viking). Several books have appeared recently depicting the role of blacks in the development of the American West, for example as park rangers or Buffalo Soldiers. Yet this well-written debut novel may be the first centering on a black family as homesteaders. Because it is set in the late period of homesteading, the first two decades of the twentieth century, the protagonist couple had slim pickings of available land, and they settled into the Badlands of South Dakota. That meant marginal land and severe droughts, with concomitant physical and emotional strain.

The conflict is between the conflicting aspirations of husband and wife. The wife wants her children to experience the social and physical comforts of civilization, as she had known at least partially while living in Chicago. The husband has the usual aspiration of male frontier protagonists: the acquisition of more and more land, but in his case with the added twist that he hoped this acquisition would result in greater respect for him and his family from his white neighbors. The climax comes when the husband leaves the ranch for the winter to work in the Black Hills gold mines in order to pay for still more land and cattle. The resolution is ambiguous and incomplete, which is usually unsettling yet not in this case. The author has given enough insights into the personalities involved that the reader can imagine alternative plausible conclusions.

The writing and imagery is beautiful, but the main strength of the book is the insight into the impact of pioneer life on the husband and wife. It is reminiscent of the writings of Ole Rolvaag in its insistence that the western frontier experience was not just a matter of “upward and onward,” but that it came at a high human cost. – DJL, Sr.

American Historical Fiction Honorable Mention for 2010:

Robin Oliveira for My Name is Mary Sutter (Viking). This is an impressive debut novel, but more than that it is a masterly work of historical fiction. A powerful and engaging story of a young woman’s quest to become a physician in nineteenth-century America, this novel (which won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship for a work in progress), illuminates the period just before and during the American Civil War through the confident, subtle use of historical detail and believable – that is, flawed and ambitious – characters. The research underpinning the narrative is vast yet unobtrusive, revealing the medical, economic, political, and other social realities of the era. My Name is Mary Sutter gives us an unusual perspective on a subject so similar to readers of American fiction and nonfiction. Here we see the catastrophe of the Civil War through the eyes of a young midwife from Albany, New York, as she struggles against the conventions of her time in the horrific hospital wards of the nation’s capital. Ms. Oliveira offers an original angle of vision that allows us to see the struggle of women and the violently disintegrating union with new eyes. It is a remarkable achievement. – RJB

Director’s Mention for 2010:

This is a category for a book or two that, while not qualifying for either the prize or honorable mention, nevertheless caught the Director’s eye and ought to be mentioned.

Kelli Carmean for Creekside: An Archeological Novel (University of Alabama Press). An interesting story of a multi-generational pioneer family farm in Eastern Kentucky is combined with a fictional account of a modern archeological dig at that same location. The two stories obviously have many points of contact. Although well-written and worthy of attention on its own merits, this book deserves mention primarily as one of the very few, perhaps the only, historical fictions informed by archeology. – DJL, Sr.

Jackson Taylor for The Blue Orchard (Simon & Schuster). From an Irish immigrant family, Verna Krone leaves school at eight and begins work as a maid to help support her family. She has a very difficult time in her young life, but teaches herself to read and ultimately becomes a nurse. After considerable inner conflict she becomes a nurse for a black doctor whose principal practice is abortion. The motivations of both doctor and nurse are interesting and more complex than either a cynical desire to make money or an altruistic wish to help unfortunate women out of unwanted pregnancies. The reader is treated to an immense amount of social history, c.1910-1960 centered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in this well-written novel that is based on actual persons and events. – DJL, Sr.

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January 14, 2010:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the 2009 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

To Edward Rutherfurd for his New York: The Novel, published by Doubleday. This massive, well-written novel traces the history of New York City, and, through that perspective, American history generally, from the 17th century to the present. The history unfolds through the lives and experiences of various families, free, slave, high class, low class, but primarily through the Masters, early a mercantile and later a banking family. Although sometimes the transitions between generations are jerky and the time shifts very rapid, when either the historical importance or the drama of the characters increase, the pace slows down appropriately. The frequent dramatic vignettes of family crises are fascinating. Even though little lectures of history are sometimes inserted into dialogue, in the main it reads smoothly and quickly. Readers should not be daunted by its size. Rutherfurd’s book completely fulfills the purpose of the prize in making the rich history of America accessible to the educated general public. – DJL, Sr.

Director’s Historical Fiction Mention:

This is a category for a book or two that, while not qualifying for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction or even coming close enough so as to qualify for the Honorable Mention, nevertheless caught the Director’s eye and ought to be mentioned.

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman for In the Lion’s Den: A Novel of the Civil War, iUniverse, Inc., does not qualify because self-published. It centers on Charles Adams and his associates’ diplomatic efforts in London to keep the British from recognizing the Confederacy and otherwise giving it aid. A parallel love story is quite predictable and interesting only for its vivid description of the United States prisoner of war camps. The treatment of Adams’s diplomacy is essentially fictionalized history rather than historical fiction. However, it is very well-written and a pleasure to read, and presents an aspect of the Civil War saga that is out of the ordinary. – DJL, Sr.

Jamie Ford for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Random House, is a heart-warming narrative with themes of a love story coupled with tangled conflicts and misunderstandings between fathers and sons, set against the American government’s eviction of Japanese-Americans from Seattle and their imprisonment during World War II. The author made some serious historical errors in the preliminary version, most but not all of which were corrected in the final book. Additionally, he sometimes resorts to commonplace images and metaphors. Nonetheless, the narrative is appealingly straightforward and proceeds with honesty and great dignity. This is an author who must be encouraged. – DJL, S

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September 26, 2009:

The Langum Charitable Trust announces the first winner of the newly created and unique Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism.

Bruce Barcott, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird (New York: Random House, 2008).

Bruce Barcott has managed to write an environmental thriller, well, certainly a page-turner. His book is a highly-readable account of a crusade to block a dam over the Macal River in the west of the Central American country of Belize. The backwaters created would destroy the habitat of that country’s Scarlet Macaws.

Barcott writes tightly and takes the reader with clarity and suspense through the minutia of the environment factors, construction details, political fights, and legal battles that move from the Belize courts all the way to the Privy Council in London. His task of building an interesting book was made easier by the rich stew of factions and factors engaged in the struggle. On one side is Sharon Matola, a somewhat quirky American expatriate living in Belize, head of the privately-run Belize Zoo, and the protagonist in a long, tiring crusade to block construction of the dam. Opposing her are corrupt Belizean officials who attempted to stop her efforts by threatening to put a national dump next to her zoo, and, after that threat was blocked, painted her as an outsider, an environmental imperialist, a tool for former white masters who would deprive the black man of his own country’s electric power. Lurking in the background are incompetent scientists and also corrupted scientists silenced by lucrative consultation contracts, avaricious private power companies, eager construction companies, and a largely uninformed and apathetic public.

Barcott moves the reader with clarity, step-by-step through years of public opinion struggles, political wrangles, and legal maneuvers. He builds suspense by not revealing the denouement, the outcome, until the very end. I think, in that regard, that I will follow his lead.

This book is a good read. The Langum Charitable Trust is proud to designate it as the first winner of the Gene E. and Renee R. Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism, for the years 2007-2008. DJL, Sr.

Please see publicist’s release at http://bookbuzz.com/langumtrust.htm.

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April 30, 2009:

The Langum Charitable Trust suspends prize presentations at Birmingham, Alabama and Port Townsend, Washington

Due to the current economic circumstances and the somewhat tepid responses to the presentations in the localities involved, we are suspending the prize presentations at Birmingham, Alabama and Port Townsend, Washington. The prizes themselves, in American Historical Fiction, American Legal History, and in Recording Community Activism, will continue to be awarded, and the prize stipends and certificates sent to the winners by mail. Simultaneously, we hope to significantly increase the national publicity given these prizes. DJL, Sr.

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February 4, 2009:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the 2008 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

The Langum Charitable Trust is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2008 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction is Kathleen Kent for The Heretic’s Daughter: A Novel, published by Little, Brown. This prize, which carries a stipend of $1,000, is awarded annually for the best book of excellent fiction and excellent history that helps to make the rich history of America accessible to the educated general public.

This vivid novel brings to life the familiar history of the Salem Witch Trials in a compelling narrative that is at once authentic, believable, and surprising. Through vivid sensory imagery and authentic detail, Kent transports the reader to a seventeenth-century common room or a dank New England jail cell. She renders the horrific details of the trials and subsequent executions of ordinary men and women, the mundane details of everyday life, and the wrenching tale of a family in conflict through a child’s voice that is rich with the flavor and rhythm of early-American speech, yet wonderfully accessible. The Heretic’s Daughter is historical fiction of the highest order: well-researched, compelling, illuminating, and beautifully done. — RA

2008 Honorable Mention

Honorable mention is made to Elisabeth Payne Rosen for Hallam’s War, published by Unbridled Books.

This well-researched and beautifully-written novel focuses on Hugh Hallam and his family, small plantation owners in antebellum Tennessee. Hallam is a progressive, in farming methods and attitudes toward slavery. He treats his slaves with decency and respect, even offering gradual emancipation. When the War comes, Hallam fights for his region as a Confederate officer. Yet the title is ironic, since Hallam fights another war within himself. He is knowledgeable about the North, and even before the fighting erupts he knows the South will lose. Hallam ultimately comes to believe that slavery itself is evil, but even with those conflicts inside him, he soldiers on. — DJL, Sr.

Director’s Mention

Another 2008 book published by Unbridled Books deserves a special mention. Jack Fuller’s Abbeville is a split time work, in which nearly half of the novel is in the very near present, and therefore questionable historical fiction. A young man returns to a fictional tiny, northern Illinois town to try to discover why his grandfather, who prospered and fell there, lived such a happy and contented life. I am utterly biased because I grew up in a small northern Illinois town, larger than Abbeville but still surrounded by cornfields. So much here rings true. But that is not why I liked the book. What impressed me is the spiritual theme, developed but never pushed on the reader. It is written with a deft touch. — DJL, Sr.

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February 4, 2009:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the 2008 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History

The Langum Charitable Trust is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2008 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History is Ernest Freeberg for Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, published by the Harvard University Press. This prize is awarded annually to the best work of American legal history or American legal biography published by a university press, that is accessible to the educated general public, rooted in sound scholarship, and has themes that touch upon matters of general concern to the American public, past or present.

Freeberg will receive his award, which carries a stipend of $1,000, in a presentation held in the auditorium of the central branch of the Birmingham Public Library at 4:00PM, March 14, 2009. Professor Freeberg will make a few remarks concerning the writing of the book and will respond to questions. A reception will follow. The event is free of charge and the public is warmly invited.

During American participation in World War I, the Wilson administration prosecuted and jailed war critics on the specious ground that their dissent tended to interfere with recruitment of soldiers. The federal government spied on groups thought to be critical, harassed individual dissidents, and caused them to lose their jobs. The government encouraged private vigilance groups to harass, abduct and even torture American citizens because of their failure to support Wilson’s ludicrous notion of a war to end all wars.

As leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs became a primary target of these persecutions, and Freeberg focuses most of this well-written book on Deb’s specific story, even while relating the more general history of the repression. Debs became one of the few imprisoned dissidents whom Wilson refused to release after the war was completed, and a large-scale campaign clamored for his pardon, ultimately granted by President Harding. In this campaign, Freeberg tells us, Debs the specific became the general story, since the amnesty effort did much to engender the more expansive notions of free speech that we enjoy today.

This book has important lessons for today, when we are now concluding another war, in Iraq, that many people and groups opposed. Again the federal government spied on Americans and practiced torture. Before surrendering to utter discouragement, we might reflect on either the refusal or inability of President Bush to simply imprison those who strongly criticized his war, as predecessor Wilson had done. The sacrifices of Debs and the dissidents of that generation may have worked a permanent change in the rights of dissent and free speech during wartime. For that, and this fine account, we should be thankful. – DJL, Sr.

2008 Honorable Mention

Honorable mention is made to Peter Charles Hoffer for the book, The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr, published by the University Press of Kansas.

This fine work vividly portrays Aaron Burr’s strange intrigues in the West and provides an illuminating account of the political and legal aspects of trials that helped to establish the principle that courts will not permit the President or Congress to manipulate the law of treason for the purpose of stifling dissent. Hoffer also demonstrates how the trials made fundamental contributions to the law of evidence and criminal procedure.

Hoffer provides fresh insights into the interactions among Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and John Marshall, and his book is an important addition to the on-going re-evaluation of Burr’s reputation. — WGR

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August 25, 2008:

Random House and Cowardly Self-Censorship

Random House recently dropped its plans to publish Sherry Jones’s book The Jewel of Medina solely on the grounds that its publication might be offensive to some in the Muslim community and might lead to acts of violence by radical Muslims. While any publisher has the right if not the duty to refuse to publish books that lack literary merit, Random House had previously decided this manuscript was highly publishable. It paid a $100,000 advance, and had arranged for foreign publication, Book of the Month Club selection, and Quality Paperback Book Club selection.

All that triggered Random House’s repudiation of its promise was the receipt of some fairly slight information that there might be violence. Serious ideas, even if offensive to some, flourish in books. Random House has exhibited a degree of cowardly self-censorship that seriously threatens the American public’s access to the free marketplace of ideas.

While this manuscript is not in any of our prize areas, Random House’s actions represent a threat to all literature. We understand that the author’s agent is attempting to find another publisher. Meanwhile, we can not pretend that this type of cowardice will disappear without serious remonstrance. Until The Jewel of Medina is actually published, The Langum Charitable Trust will not consider submissions of any books, for any of our prizes, from Random House or any of its affiliates. We do this reluctantly, since our most recent prize in American historical fiction went to a Random House title. Nevertheless, this issue must be confronted.

It is regrettable that with our national Banned Books Week only one month away, we still must concern ourselves with these issues.

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April 25, 2008:

San Jose State University Library’s Special Collection Department Accessions a Portion of David J. Langum, Sr.’s Legal Files

San Jose State University Library’s Special Collection Department, San Jose, California, is accessioning portions of the legal files of David J. Langum, Sr., who practiced law in San Jose, 1968-1978. Professor Langum has removed the factual materials, for example depositions and interrogatories, from the litigation files, themselves only a small portion of his total files. However, these materials will be of highest interest to social historians and at the same time are not in breach of any client confidence. These winnowed litigation files include 15 personal injury lawsuits, 10 domestic relations cases including post-dissolution modifications, 11 business and real property lawsuits, a massive bankruptcy matter appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and 6 criminal matters. In addition, Professor Langum has donated 17 complete files where the confidentiality issue, for varying reasons, has been resolved, including three complete personal injury cases, eight files concerning all phases of representing a weekly newspaper, including acquisition, various business disputes, and ultimate sale, and six complete files concerning a variety of business transactions and litigation. The Special Collections Department is now processing the materials, and an announcement will be made when they are available for public use.

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April 2, 2008:

Kurt Andersen Wins 2007 Langum Prize in Historical Fiction

kurt_andersonKurt Andersen, author of Turn of the Century, columnist for New York magazine, and host of public radio’s Studio 360, has won the 2007 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical fiction for his Heyday, a novel. He will receive the $1,000 prize and make remarks concerning the writing of the book on Friday, July 18, 2008, 4:00PM, at Wheeler Theatre, Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend, Washington. The presentation ceremony is held in conjunction with Centrum Foundation’s annual writers conference, and is free and open to the public.

Andersen’s Heyday well-fits the purposes of the prize. Set in 1848, the novel begins in New York City and explores the relationship of a traveling Englishman and an American actress and clandestine prostitute, their friends and relations. As misunderstandings develop between the principal protagonists, the woman flees westward, the man pursues her, and in a sub-plot a would-be assassin chases the man. They all end up in California at the beginning of the Gold Rush.

heyday_a_novelIn this engaging novel, Andersen immerses the reader in rich quotidian details of life in New York City and California. The chase across the entire continent allows Andersen to portray the middle of the country, its history and prospects as of 1848, an area often neglected by historical fiction. The Midwestern utopian communities of the mid-nineteenth century are particularly well-described. Meditations on American inventiveness run throughout the book.

The reader acquires much social history from this 1848 setting. Where appropriate to the plot, the characters ruminate about political events or are in contact with actual actors on the political, economic, or cultural stage, thereby giving the reader political and economic history, especially relating to technology, in the context of the mid-nineteenth century.

In short, Heyday, a novel is both excellent fiction and lavishly excellent history.

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January 15, 2008:

The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Winner of the 2007 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History

The Langum Charitable Trust is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2007 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History is Bruce J. Dierenfield for his book, The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America, published by the University Press of Kansas. This prize is awarded annually to the best work of American legal history or American legal biography published by a university press, which is accessible to the educated general public, rooted in sound scholarship, and with themes that touch upon matters of general concern to the American public, past or present.

Dierenfield will receive his award, which carries a stipend of $1,000, in a ceremony held in the auditorium of the central branch of the Birmingham Public Library at 4:00PM, March 8, 2008. Professor Dierenfield will make a few remarks concerning his writing of the book and will respond to questions. A reception will follow. The event is free and the public is warmly invited.

A major issue roiling the American public since the 1960s has been the appropriateness and constitutionality of organized prayers in the American public schools. In Engel v. Vitale [1962] the United States Supreme Court struck down a bland prayer without explicit Christian reference that New York State law permitted and a local school district required students recite as a part of the daily opening exercises. In Engel, its first entry into the school prayer issue, the Court held that even with opt-out provisions that permitted individual students to remain silent or leave the room, the prayer violated the interpretation of the First Amendment that had created a “wall of separation” between church and state. The decision caused great consternation. Adherents of public prayers bemoaned their withdrawal in schools as fostering juvenile delinquency, even communism, and destroying the traditional understanding and privileged place of the Christian religion in the nation. Some with such views denounced the ACLU, atheists, Jews, and others they thought were fomenting trouble by bringing lawsuits based on the First Amendment to challenge prayer in schools.

Dierenfield has done a wonderful job of lucidly describing this controversy and the resulting litigation. Although the heart of the book is the Engel case, he also traces the entire history of the American church and state relationship, with particular reference to religious activity in schools, including Bible reading, student-led prayer, moments of silence, student pre and post-school religious activities within the school grounds, as well as organized prayers and Constitutional amendments designed to restore them.

The book is calm in tone and presents all sides to the controversies. Dierenfield conducted numerous interviews with the Engel parties, lawyers, judge, students, teachers, and school officials, as well as the participants of other court battles over school prayer. As a result of these interviews he is able to describe the impact of the litigation on the individuals directly involved. These were generally vicious taunts and reprisals heaped on the plaintiffs and their families by the advocates of public Christian prayer.

As is true with all of the other books in the Kansas series, Landmark Law Cases and American Society, Dierenfield’s Battle over School Prayer, is not footnoted. However, the thorough scholarship is clearly evident, and the book has an excellent bibliographic essay and a good, useable index. – DJL, Sr.

Beginning this year, 2008, the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction will be awarded separately, during Centrum Foundation’s Port Townsend Writers’ Conference in July.

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November 28, 2007:

The Langum Charitable Trust Sponsoring the Gene E. and Adele R. Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism

The Gene E. and Adele R. Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism recognizes biannually the best literary depiction of an individual or small group of individuals whose efforts resulted in a significant improvement of their local community. Although the work of community improvement must be significant, the basis of the prize will be the skill and power of the literary or film depiction. Eligible media include books, magazine articles, series of newspaper articles, or films, published or released within the past two years of a prize cycle, e.g., published or released in 2007 or 2008 for the prize awarded in 2009.

The prize for the writer, or in case of a film divided between the director and screenwriter, is $1,500. If ongoing, the underlying project of community activism will receive $1,000. The winners are asked to attend an award ceremony, ideally held in the community where the activism was accomplished, and a dinner honoring them. The Trust defrays all travel and other expenses.

Gene E. and Adele R. Malott

Gene E. and Adele R. Malott

Gene E. Malott (1933-1999) and Adele R. Malott (1935-2005) created careers in print journalism, as reporters, editors, and publishers of newspapers and magazines, winning many awards for their endeavors. Later in their lives, they turned to travel writing, making a niche in writing directed toward senior travelers. Gene Malott received the prestigious La Pluma de Plata award, or silver pen, from the Mexican government for his writing on Mexico, and the members of the Society of American Travel Writers elected Adele Malott as their president. Throughout most of their careers, the Malotts lived in relatively small communities, San Mateo, California;

Little Falls, Minnesota; Reno, Nevada, and were keen enthusiasts of their local issues and politics, as both reporters and participants. Even in their later years when travel writing required frequent international journeys, they remained, as they were throughout their lives, devoted to and enthusiastic about the communities in which they lived. Adele R. Malott established the Malott Prize through a bequest to The Langum Charitable Trust, whose founder and Director, David J. Langum, Sr., was a close friend of the Malotts since the mid-1960s.

Adele Malott was convinced, in her words, that “at democracy’s heart are people who find themselves agitating for change to make things better, repair something that has broken down or create new solutions for old problems. Such changes do not come easily. Nor without pain and leadership.” Some examples include Erin Brockovich, a file clerk in an attorney’s office who shook Pacific Gas & Electric Company by the scruff of its neck and alerted Hinkley, California to the carcinogenic pollutants the company was leaching into the city’s water supply. Her successful efforts inspired the popular 2000 film, Erin Brockovich. In this case, while Erin Brockovich herself would not be eligible for the Malott Prize, the movie would be. Another example would be the work of John Champion, a machinist in Reno, Nevada, who found filth and pollution in the local Truckee River, and trash and transients along its banks. His agitation and personal example of cleanup drew media attention to these conditions and sparked renewal projects significant enough that the city named a park along the river in his honor. While Champion’s efforts themselves would not be eligible for the Malott Prize, a series of articles in the local media about his efforts would be, and ongoing river projects would be eligible for the supplemental award for the underlying project. The object of community activism could range very broadly, from corrupt officials to local crime, anything that is substantial and essentially located within a community.

Adele Malott was most interested in grassroots activists. She was fascinated by the motivation of quite ordinary people who “found themselves in circumstances that pulled them out of the crowd and caused them to speak up,” even as neighbors judged them busybodies and politicians judged them troublemakers. She wrote that she wished the prize-winning accounts to show us what made the activists move, “what pushed him/her to get off the couch and spend hours at countless meetings trying to be heard, trying to persuade people to help pick up the load and move toward a solution. We should be seeing things through this activist’s eyes.”

The deadline for materials published or released in 2007 is January 1, 2008, and materials published or released in 2008 must be submitted by January 1, 2009. This pattern will continue hereafter, with materials published or produced in any given year due for submission at the end of that year. We are asking for these staggered submissions, even though the prize itself is biannual, so that our selection committee can consider submissions on a rolling basis. Please submit three copies of each book, magazine article, or series of newspaper articles. We ask for three DVDs of films, together with three transcripts.

Send all submissions to address indicated on our website, www.langumtrust.org. As of 2007 that address is: The Langum Charitable Trust, P.O. Box 12643, Birmingham, Alabama 35202-2643. Address questions to David J. Langum, Sr., Director, at the same address, or send by e-mail to langumtrust@gmail.com. We expect to announce the winners on our website.

 

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May 20, 2007:

The Langum Charitable Trust Deeply Laments the Suspension of Publication of American Heritage

The Langum Charitable Trust Deeply Laments the Suspension of Publication of American Heritage, the high quality-journal of American history that successfully brought the richness of their nation’s history to two generations of Americans. The same issue (May 17, 2007) of the New York Times which announced this news also reported the results of a 2006 federal survey of student performance on history exams. The statistics showed that the percentage of students who had a basic understanding of American history, not proficient or advanced, measured by performance on a national history test, was 70% for fourth graders, but declined to 65% for eighth graders and then to 47% for high school seniors. Commented David J. Langum, Sr., Director of the Langum Trust, “There are many theories about the cause for this decline over the course of students’ education, but the ultimate fact is that the majority of American high school graduates lack even a basic knowledge of American history. College will usually not help those who continue their education because American history is no longer generally a required part of universities’ curricula or has been reduced to a single course.”

The demise of the American Heritage and the continued historical illiteracy of American high school seniors, emphasize the important role of historical fiction in bringing history to the educated general public. Santayana’s jeremiad that a people “who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is a gross over-simplification, yet, notes Langum, “history does teach valuable cautionary lessons, and the United States now and in the past ignores them to the nation’s and her people’s great peril.”

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The Langum Charitable Trust Announces Changes in its David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

Beginning with the 2007 prize, awarded in 2008, commercial trade press publications will be eligible for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, as well as university presses and small presses. Self-published and subsidized books will continue to be ineligible.

“This does not represent a change in substance or standards from our previous practices,” said David J. Langum, Sr, the Director of the Langum Charitable Trust. “We will continue to seek books that are both excellent history and excellent literature and that will allow the educated general reader access to the richness of American history. The addition of trade press publications will simply make the competition more robust.” The Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction is the only annual prize honoring American historical fiction for adult readers and across all geographic regions of America.

The anticipated increase in submissions has necessitated an increase in the size of the selection committee and also a change in venue for the awarding of the prize.

The new selection committee for the American history prize consists of:

Peter Donahue, Associate Professor of English, Birmingham-Southern College, and author of, among other works, Madison House: A Novel and The Cornelius Arms.

David J. Langum, Sr., Research Professor, Samford University, founder of The Langum Charitable Trust, and author of, among other works, Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act and William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America.

Virginia E. Langum, M.A., Trinity College, Dublin, M.S. Columbia School of Journalism, M.Phil candidate, Cambridge University.

Katherine Vaz, Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction, Harvard University, 2006-7 Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute, and author of, among other works, Mariana and Saudade.

Of the new selection committee, David J. Langum, Sr. noted that “Katherine Vaz and Peter Donahue have academic interests in historical fiction and at the same time are published writers in that genre. They are talented writers with a great deal of respect for historical verisimilitude. We are fortunate to have their assistance.”

Beginning in 2008, in respect to the 2007 winner, the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction will be awarded every July in Port Townsend, Washington, in a ceremony held in cooperation with the Centrum Foundation’s annual Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. The Langum Charitable Trust and Centrum are completely different foundations, and The Langum Charitable Trust will be solely responsible for the selection of its winners and the financing of its award and ceremony. “Nevertheless,” noted Langum, “there will advantages to each organization to awarding this prize in conjunction with the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, a major conference enjoying the idyllic summers of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.” The Langum Charitable Trust will continue to award the Langum Prize in Legal History and Legal Biography in March of each year at the Birmingham Public Library in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Books from Small Presses Now Eligible for Historical Fiction Prize

Books published by small presses as well as university presses are now eligible for the historical fiction prize. A small press is defined as one that in the preceding year has published no fewer than five and no more than 50 books by itself or through affiliates, and has accepted no subsidy or payment from the author of the book submitted. Because of the difficulty of contacting small presses, we will rely primarily upon author submissions.

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Travel to Collections Grants Now Available

Grants are now available for the Travel to Collections initiative. See the Travel to Collections page for details.

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