Walking in Joseph Conrad's footsteps, Maya Jasanoff Wins 2018 Cundill History Prize

The Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff has today been announced as the winner of the world’s leading history prize (US$75,000) for her genre-bending account of the life and world of the Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad.
Published: 15 November 2018

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World blends history, biography, travelogue, and literary criticism into a unique work of scholarship that identifies Conrad as a pioneer in understanding the modern world, as he grapples with issues such as migration, terrorism, and a communications revolution.

Announcing the jury’s decision at the Cundill History Prize Gala at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Mark Gilbert, Chair of the Jury, said:“The Dawn Watch is a striking portrait of an exceptional man and his times. Maya Jasanoff is a visitor in Conrad’s world, a recreator of it and in some ways its judge. Capturing this world required remarkable research, an eye for telling detail, a roving spirit similar to Conrad’s own, and a gift for historical narrative. Fortunately, Jasanoff’s pen, like Conrad’s, is a magic wand.”

Juror Peter Frankopan said: “The Dawn Watch is immaculately researched. And it is innovative too: part history, part travelogue, part literary criticism. I think that is one reason why it succeeds so well – because it is constantly challenging us to think about the period, the writer, the works and the places. It is like technicolour, bursting with life on each page.”

Jasanoff has sailed from East Asia to Europe on a cargo ship and travelled 1,000 miles down the Congo river for The Dawn Watch, which has received widespread critical acclaim from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times, from the Economist to the Spectator, from the Guardian to the Financial Times, and was praised by writers including John le Carré, Geoff Dyer and Claire Tomalin.

Peter Frankopan added: Walking in someone else’s steps is only part of the story; the skill is working out what can be learned from doing so – and perhaps most important of all, explaining that to readers. First class historical writing requires all of these to come together; and it is a lot harder than it sounds. Jasanoff’s book is beautifully written too. It is lyrical, evocative and haunting, and captures Conrad’s writing, personality and life perfectly. Jasanoff has tied so many strands together in such interesting ways; it really is an outstanding book by a brilliant scholar.”

Juror Carol Berkin said: “Jasanoff takes us on a journey of discovery and adventure in the early years of globalisation. Using Joseph Conrad’s experiences and his observations as the lens through which she explores historical change and adaptation, Jasanoff examines the origins of many of the ills we have come to associate with our world today: terrorism, racism, and individual alienation. Through Jasanoff we better understand Conrad the writer and the adventurer; through Conrad we better understand the emergence of our modern world.”

Jasanoff is Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University. She has previously been a finalist for the Cundill History Prize for her second book, Liberty’s Exile (2011), which was also shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize (now Baillie Gifford Prize). Her first book, Edge of Empire, was awarded the 2005 Duff Cooper Prize.

Antonia Maioni, Dean of Arts at McGill University, said: “The Dawn Watch stands for everything the Cundill History Prize is here to celebrate: a work of global history, extremely well researched, and so well written it will be enjoyed by a very broad general readership indeed.”

The two runners up each received a Recognition of Excellence Award, together with US$10,000: the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Caroline Fraser for the first comprehensive historical account of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books; and the Ohio State University Associate Professor of History Sam White for his inter-disciplinary investigation into the decisive role the climate played in the success and failure of the first North American settlements.

Run by McGill University, the international Cundill History Prize honours the abiding vision of its founder, the McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill. One of the most highly regarded global investors of his time, the globe-trotting philanthropist believed passionately in well-written works of history as the best foundation for a better informed public debate.

Jasanoff follows the British historian Daniel Beer, who won the prize last year for for The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, his groundbreaking study of Siberian penal colonies, and joins an alumni list of world-leading historians: Thomas W. Laqueur (2016), Susan Pedersen (2015), Gary Bass (2014), Anne Applebaum (2013), Stephen Platt (2012), Sergio Luzzatto (2011), Diarmaid MacCulloch (2010), Lisa Jardine (2009), Stuart B. Schwartz (2008).

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Praise for The Dawn Watch

“A startlingly original take of the state we’re in” TLS

“The Dawn Watch is the most vivid and suggestive biography of Conrad ever written... [A] beautiful book.” Wall Street Journal

“It is a stunning achievement.” The Sunday Times

“A masterpiece... one of the most important books on colonialism to be written in our time, and by one of our most brilliant young historians” William Dalrymple

“Jasanoff created a Conrad for our time” The Times

“An unobtrusively skilful, subtle, clear-eyed book, beautifully narrated” Financial Times

“An enviably gifted writer” Spectator

“Written with a novelist’s flair for vivid detail and a scholar’s attention to text... a fresh view of a much-scribbled-on writer” Literary Review

“Jasanoff is a splendid storyteller and stylist.” San Francisco Chronicle“Enlightening, compassionate, superb” John le Carré

“Maya Jasanoff is an eloquent historian and an erudite storyteller” Geoff Dyer

Notes to Editors

About Maya Jasanoff | Maya Jasanoff is Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University. Her first book, Edge of Empire, was awarded the 2005 Duff Cooper Prize and was a book of the year selection in numerous publications including the EconomistGuardian and Sunday Times.

Her second, Liberty’s Exiles, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize (now Baillie Gifford Prize). A 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, Jasanoff won the prestigious 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction. She was a finalist for the 2011 Cundill History Prize with Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World.

Further juror quotes:

Juror Jeffrey Simpson said“Maya Jasanoff’s book combines beautiful writing, creativity and exemplary scholarship to provide a portrait of a writer and his time and, more importantly, what that writer might tell us about the challenges of today.”

Juror Caroline Elkins“Extremely well plotted, technically brilliant and beautifully written, The Dawn Watch is a work of history that presents us with new ways of reading about authors, and their times.”

About the Cundill History Prize | The Cundill History Prize recognizes and rewards the best history writing in English. A prize of US$75,000 is awarded annually to the book that embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal. The two runners-up each receive US$10,000. The Cundill History Prize is administered by McGill University in Montreal and awarded by five distinguished jurors. It honours the abiding passion for history of its founder, F. Peter Cundill, by encouraging informed public debate through the wider dissemination of history writing to new audiences around the world.

About McGill University | Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill is a leading Canadian post- secondary institution. It has two campuses, 10 faculties, 12 professional schools, 300 programs of study and almost 41,000 students, including more than 9,700 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,000 international students making up 30% per cent of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 20% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

About F. Peter Cundill | F. Peter Cundill (1938-2011), a distinguished alumnus of McGill University, was a philanthropist, sportsman, diarist, and renowned global investor. A voracious reader and inveterate traveller, F. Peter Cundill had an abiding passion for history: he believed that it was possible to comprehend the present and arrive at a measured perspective about the future only by first understanding the past. This led him to found the Cundill History Prize. The Peter Cundill Foundation continues to support charities, research projects, and educational and enterprise gifts to young people.

About the 2018 jury | Mark Gilbert (Chair) is Professor of History and International Studies at the Bologna campus of the School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University. Educated at the University of Durham and the University of Wales (PhD 1990), Gilbert previously taught at Dickinson College, the University of Bath, and the University of Trento.

Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History, Emerita, of Baruch College & The Graduate Center, CUNY. She received her B.A. from Barnard College and her PhD from Columbia University where her dissertation received the Bancroft Award in 1972. She has written extensively on women’s history, the American Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, and the politics of the early Republic.

Caroline Elkins is Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Visiting Professor at Harvard Business School, Affiliated Professor at Harvard Law School, and the Founding Director of Harvard’s Center for African Studies. She has been a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and The New Republic.

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he is founding Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College. He has been Stanley J. Seeger Visiting Fellow in Hellenic Studies at Princeton, Scaliger Visiting Professor at Leiden and Presidential Scholar at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Simpson is Canada’s most decorated journalist and the author of seven books. He has won all three of Canada’s leading literary prizes – the Governor-General’s award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing. He has served as a juror for the Cundill History Prize on three previous occasions.

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