UK Historian Daniel Beer Wins Canada’s $75,000 Cundill History Prize for ‘House of the Dead’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Moving past Christopher Goscha’s work on Vietnam and Walter Scheidel’s explication of violence as an historical driver, the Cundill History Prize jury declares London-based Beer’s ‘The House of the Dead’ to be ‘a triumph.’

Daniel Beer at the 2017 Cundill History Prize ceremony. Image: Cundill History Prize

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘A Hugely Deserving Winner’

At a ceremony in Montréal this evening (November 16), Daniel Beer has been named winner of the richest prize in nonfiction for a single work in English. His The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars has won the hotly contested Cundill History Prize with his book from publisher Allen Lane.

Beer is a senior lecturer in modern European history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and he is one of three shortlisted contenders for the prize, which has  been rejuvenated this year by Canada’s McGill University, the seat of the Cundill Foundation.

Beer’s win was announced by Oxford-based historian and professor Margaret MacMillan, chair of the jury, at a gala dinner event at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts.

As Publishing Perspectives reported this year, the Cundill prize has drawn strong interest not only because it has undergone a new re-energization by its organizers at McGill University in Canada but also because so many of its leading entries bring historical perspective on a deeply challenging political year in many markets.

This is, of course, reflected in comments coming from the prize’s blue-ribbon jury.

MacMillan, for example—herself the author of ‘Nixon in China’—has offered this comment as part of the rationale for the Cundill decision this evening: “Daniel Beer has done extraordinary research, using under-appreciated and unexamined sources, to show what exile meant to generations of Russians and other nationalities within the Russian Empire.

“He gives a moving and heart-rending account of what happened to these people, most of whom never returned from Siberia. The House of the Dead is a haunting and important contribution to Russian history, and a hugely deserving winner of the 2017 Cundill History Prize.”

In addition to Beer’s top award, the two runners-up in the competition are to receive a “recognition of excellence” citation and US$10,000 each in prize money. They are:

  • Christopher Goscha for his Vietnam: A New History from Basic books
  • Walter Scheidel for The Great Levelor: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century from Princeton University Press.

More commentary about Beer’s The House of the Dead includes this statement from juror Roy Foster: “‘Daniel Beer ’s The House of the Dead reads like a tragic Russian novel, which is apposite since Dostoevsky and, indeed, Chekhov figure in the story of Siberia.

“The book shows the tragedy of the people who were sent marching east, and the extraordinary variety of the lives they made, and lost, there: Russian revolutionaries, Polish nationalists, and all sorts of felons and outcasts. While beautifully written, and a riveting read, it is quarried out of an extraordinary range of sources, hitherto unavailable, and is a work of great scholarship.”

And the juror Amanda Foreman is quoted, saying, “Daniel Beer has a universality of approach that is both innovative and important.

“He tells the story of an immense tragedy, spanning hundreds of years. The House of the Dead uses a huge canvas, but Beer is able to bring out individual stories and a real sense of what it means to be human. This book is a triumph.”

Speaking for McGill University’s sponsorship of the award, Antonia Maioni, dean of arts, is quoted, saying, “At McGill, we value research-intensive history and, at the same time, the ability to communicate to the rest of the world the importance of history writing and an understanding of Canada’s role in the global setting.

“The Cundill History Prize plays a hugely important role—championing the highest quality historical scholarship from around the world, and rewarding books that can reach out to appeal to a wide audience, ignite conversation, and evoke a better understanding of ourselves and others.”

The jury’s opening selection pool comprised a record 300 submissions, and the exercise in choosing a winner embraces the search for “a work of history that delivers exceptional scholarship in a relevant and accessible read.”

Another juror, Rana Mitter, is quoted as saying, “The Cundill History Prize is given to a book that marks a particular excellence in the quality of history, and what I mean by that is ‘craft’; providing something for the writing and the study of history that shows a particular sort of ambition, scope and dedication. Daniel Beer has combined meticulous use of archives with a gripping narrative drive. This is a book that shows the historian’s craft at the highest level.”

And juror Jeffrey Simpson is quoted, emphasizing the importance of accessibility in the Cundill jury’s selection criteria: “The Cundill History Prize looks for outstanding historical scholarship, but also accessibility: a reader who is not an expert should be able to read and understand the book it chooses. And the winner must teach us something we can profit from today, as we grapple with contemporary problems.”

Beer’s book is also shortlisted for The Wolfson History Prize, The Pushkin House Russian Book Prize. and the Longman History Today Prize, 2017.

Daniel Beer speaks to the Cundill History Prize gala audience on learning of his win. Image: Cundill History Prize

More coverage of the 2017 Cundill History Prize season is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.