Steven Hahn: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History

Historians in the News

Molly Petrilla, in the Daily Pennsylvanian (April 7, 2004):

On Monday afternoon, History professor Steven Hahn received a phone call. "It was someone from The Associated Press," Hahn recalled. "She said, 'Well, I'm calling to talk to you about the Pulitzer Prize,' and I said, 'What do you want to talk about?' and she said, 'Well, you won it.'"

Though Hahn knew that his book, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for history, he had not heard anything about his victory.

"She didn't have to convince me in the sense that I knew I was nominated for the prize, and I knew that they were going to make an announcement" on Monday, Hahn explained. "I believed her, but I was stunned."

Yet it seems that Hahn should have been well prepared for the news, since his book received the Bancroft Prize for the best book on American history and the Merle Curti Prize for the best book in social history earlier this year.

A Nation Under Our Feet is "a book about thinking about slaves as political people and how the politics that were forged under slavery gave shape to the politics that developed after slavery ended," Hahn explained. "It's a very complicated, multifaceted story."

Because of the book's complicated, innovative subject, Hahn said he took extra precautions to ensure that it would appeal to a wide audience.

"It's a scholarly book, and yet is not encumbered with all the scholarly paraphernalia that would make it of no interest to people who are not academic historians, which is the audience I'm used to writing for," he explained.

But even though he was careful to ensure that his book would be accessible to nonacademics, Hahn said that he was still surprised by the Pulitzer committee's decision.

Based on feedback he received along the way, Hahn said he knew that his book "was certainly passing muster on scholarly ground," but he remained uncertain of how those outside of the academic community might receive it.

"I thought that the book was a little too scholarly and a little too edgy because books that win the Pulitzer oftentimes are more journalistic -- written by people who have addressed large audiences for a long time."

However, according to History Department Chairman Jonathan Steinberg, it is what Hahn describes as the book's "edgy" subject matter that makes it "absolutely brilliant."

Hahn "has done something which, once it's done, is obvious, but nobody thought to do it before," Steinberg said. "That's true of a lot of great ideas."

A large part of his pride in winning a Pulitzer, Hahn said, comes from the fact that his book focuses on such underrepresented people.

"I obviously feel excited for myself, but I feel really excited that a book on a subject like this would get recognition," he said. "I mean, this is a book about grassroots politics -- it's not about prominent leaders. It's not about people who are well known, it's about people who kind of emerge and in some ways evaporate, at least in the historical record."

Hahn said he became interested in history as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester during the Civil Rights Movement.

"I was in undergraduate school in the early 1970s, and history was very infused with all sorts of important political concerns," Hahn said. "History seemed to be a way I could combine social and political concerns with intellectual ones."

It was this passion for history that he cultivated as an undergraduate which eventually led Hahn to a professorship at Penn, where he began teaching this year.

"Penn has had a deep tradition of excellence in history," he said. "I think it's the most exciting History Department in the country right now."

comments powered by Disqus