Canada’s $75,000 Cundill History Prize Names Its Shortlist in New York City

In News by Porter Anderson

Five women and three men make the shortlist for the 2019 Cundill Prize, which stresses history for non-historians and internationalism as its guiding principles.

At the 2019 Cundill History Prize shortlist announcement, jurors Rana Mitter, left, and Robert Gerwarth speak with audience members at the Canadian general consulate in New York City. Image: Yuan Images, Alexander F. Yuan

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

‘Grappling With Empires’
Staging its announcement in an unusual city for this well-funded Canadian award, the Cundill History Prize has gone to New York City tonight (September 19) to name its 2019 shortlist.

At the consulate general of Canada on Lexington Avenue, this year’s eight-title list has been announced by this year’s jury, which features Pulitzer Prize-winning Alan Taylor; Harvard’s Jane Kamesky; the Oxford China Center’s Rana Mitter; University College Dublin’s Robert Gerwarth; and Canadian author and historian Charlotte Gray.

As Publishing Perspectives has reported for years, the Cundill is the prize that carries an eye-watering US$75,000 purse for its winner.

The essential criterion of the Cundill award—per the wishes of F. Peter Cundill (1938-2011), who created his foundation to fund it—is accessibility, history for non-historians. The prize annually seeks out scrupulous social, geopolitical, and literary observations and analysis interpreted in the most readable voices for a Trumpian-Johnsonian era that needs the guardrails of history with fast-mounting urgency.

‘Further Into the Mainstream’

Audience members discuss points with award jurors at the 2019 Cundill History Prize shortlist announcement. Image: Yuan Images, Alexander F. Yuan

In response to Publishing Perspectives‘ question as to why the program made its announcement this year south of Montreal where the prize is administered by McGill University. Antonia Maioni, dean of McGill’s arts faculty, told us that the program’s internationalism is the key to tonight’s venue.

“What sets the Cundill History Prize apart, perhaps more than anything,” she says in a message to us, “is its international nature.

Antonia Maioni

“We are open to works in English produced anywhere in the world, regardless of the nationality of the author, and [we] welcome translations as well. Submissions come from all corners of the world, and across a breadth of global topics. Travelling with our events is a very important part of this.

“Since our relaunch in 2017, we’ve held successful events in London, with publishers, academics, historians, history readers and journalists congregating at Canada House, in central London.”

“Taking the announcement to New York City this year, she said, “is a fantastic way to connect further with the history writing community in the United States, invite American publishers, agents and journalists, and provide a platform for historians across the country.

“Our events are always more than announcements. In New York, we have the 2018 winner of the prize, Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff, in conversation with historian, author and previous juror Amanda Foreman. In Toronto, the next stop this fall, jury chair Alan Taylor will discuss perspectives of North American histories with the Canadian historian Robert Bothwell.

“Our roadshow is at the heart of our ongoing effort to produce the best history writing further and further into the mainstream, to connect readers with the best work that is out there, to reach a wide range of publishers, agents, and historians, and to be present with our prize beyond Montreal, which the prize continues to proudly call home.”

‘To Illuminate Contemporary Dilemmas’

From left, Amanda Foreman, Maya Jasanoff, and Antonia Maioni at the 2019 Cundill History Prize shortlist announcement. Image: Yuan Images, Alexander F. Yuan

So it is that the program tonight at the Canadian mission in New York City has named five women and three men with geographical research interests that include Africa, the Americas, Asia, Britain, China, and Germany in its celebration of titles with colons in them.

The Cundill’s 2019 shortlisted authors hold 15 other major awards between them, including the Pulitzer Prize and the UK’s Wolfson History Prize, which was won this year by Mary Fulbrook for for Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press), and last year by Peter Marshall for his Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (Yale University Press).

And in another distinguishing trait, the Cundill indulges each year in an extra stage of selection by releasing not only its jury makeup in March (during the London Book Fair) its longlist in June, and its shortlist in September, but also a round of three “finalists”—which are to be named on October 16 at Massey College in Toronto (during the Frankfurter Buchmesse)—before finally announcing its winner in Montreal, this year on November 14.

Cundill History Prize 2019 Shortlist

The 2019 Cundill History Prize longlist at the award’s shortlist announcement. Image: Yuan Images, Alexander F. Yuan

In a prepared statement of rationale, jury chair Taylor is quoted, saying, “The authors shortlisted for the 2019 Cundill History Prize seek to illuminate contemporary dilemmas with a deeper sense of development through time. These dilemmas include global climate risks, family dynamics in Britain, justice and injustice is post-Holocaust Europe, and the lingering legacy of slavery in the United States.

“Something that distinguishes these works is their dedication to style; each one offers a powerful read that combines elegant style with big ideas.”Rana Mitter

“The books include sweeping synthetic works, such as Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and close examinations of intimate worlds, as with Helen Berry’s Orphans of Empire. They range in time and place from early modern West Africa to the global spread of Maoism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and combine a depth of research with innovative questions and clear prose meant to communicate, often beautifully, to general readers as well as academic scholars.”

And juror Mitter echoed Maioni’s depiction of the internationalism of the program, saying, “Something that distinguishes this list is its embrace of the global.

“It grapples with empires, both at the wide scale—a history of the United States—and the micro-level—the fate of the orphans who lived in the times of empire.

“It also recovers lost voices, showing that Africa and  Asia, places too often seen through the eyes of the West, have their own voices, which tell different and  powerful stories.

“Something that distinguishes these works is their dedication to style; each one offers a powerful read that combines elegant style with big ideas.

Also on hand for the evening was last year’s winner, Maya Jasonoff (The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Penguin Random House). She and juror Amanda Foreman discussed their work in a session moderated by Maioni.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Cundill History Prize is here. And more on literary prizes in general is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he 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 (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.