MOUNT VERNON, VA (May 24, 2006) – The second annual George Washington Book Prize was awarded at Mount Vernon on May 23 to Stacy Schiff for her book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. The $50,000 prize honors the most important new book about the founding era. Schiff, winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography, tells the story of the eight years Benjamin Franklin spent in France beginning in 1776.
“In this time of renewed interest in the founding period, it is especially gratifying to be recognized for my efforts to bring a little-known chapter of Ben Franklin’s life to light,” said Schiff. “To receive this significant award at the home of another illustrious founder is a true honor.”
Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association collaborated in 2005 to create the prize, awarded in
its inaugural year to Ron Chernow for Alexander Hamilton.
Presented to Schiff at a black-tie event featuring cuisine inspired by recipes found in Franklin’s papers, the George Washington Book Prize is one of the most generous book awards in the United States. Its $50,000 is a far greater sum than that of literary awards such as the Pulitzer Prize for History ($7,500) and the National Book Award ($10,000).
In A Great Improvisation, Schiff draws from new and not widely known sources to illuminate the least-explored part of Franklin’s life. She brings to the surface an unfamiliar chapter of the Revolution, a tale of American infighting, and the backroom dealings at Versailles that would propel George Washington from near decimation at Valley Forge to victory at Yorktown. A particularly human and yet fiercely determined Founding Father emerges as readers get a sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country’s bid for independence.
“In sparkling prose, burnished to a high gloss, Stacy Schiff tells the tale of Benjamin Franklin in Paris with piquant humor, outrageous anecdotes worthy of the finest French farce, and a wealth of lapidary observations…C’est magnifique,” said last year’s prize winner Chernow.
The event at Mount Vernon, complete with fireworks and candlelit tours of Washington’s Mansion, also celebrated the works of the two other finalists before an audience of guests from political, academic, and diplomatic arenas. Finalists were Edward Lengel for General George Washington: A Military Life and Stanley Weintraub for Iron Tears: America’s Battle for Freedom, Britain’s Quagmire: 1775-1783. The books were selected by a three-person jury of early-American history scholars: Carol Berkin of Baruch College, City University of New York; Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute; and Gordon Wood of Brown University.
“In each work selected, the jury saw refreshing perspectives on our nation’s founding era,” said Ted Widmer, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the prize.
“This prize is a tremendous way to recognize exceptional scholarship on perhaps the greatest period in American history,” said James Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
About the Institutions
Washington College was founded in 1782, the first institution of higher learning established in the new republic. George Washington was not only a principal donor to the college, he also served on the governing board for many years. He received an honorary degree from the college in June 1789, two months after assuming the presidency. The George Washington Book Prize is administered by the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, an innovative center for the study of history, culture and politics.
Founded in 1994 by Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History promotes the study and love of American history. Increasingly national and international in scope, the Institute targets audiences ranging from students to scholars to the general public. It creates history-centered schools and academic research centers, organizes seminars and enrichment programs for educators, partners with school districts to implement Teaching American History grants, produces print and electronic publications and traveling exhibitions, and sponsors lectures by historians. The Institute also funds the Lincoln Prize and Frederick Douglass Book Prize and offers fellowships for scholars to work in history archives, including the Gilder Lehrman Collection.
With the completion of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center scheduled for October 27, 2006, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has pledged to create the equivalent of a presidential library for George Washington. The Association will work with scholars at the University of Virginia Press to place all of Washington’s writings on Mount Vernon’s award-winning website. “We want to be the first place people think of when they have a question about George Washington,” noted James Rees, Mount Vernon’s Executive Director. “The George Washington Book Prize is an important component in our aggressive outreach program to historians, teachers, and students.”
About Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography, and Saint-Exupéry, a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a Director’s Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Schiff lives with her husband and three children in New York City. Stacy Schiff, right, was photographed by Sheva Fruitman.
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