U of A's Elliott West Wins Prestigious Bancroft Prize

U of A historian and 2024 Bancroft Prizes in American History and Diplomacy winner Elliott West.
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U of A historian and 2024 Bancroft Prizes in American History and Diplomacy winner Elliott West.

U of A historian Elliott West has been named one of two winners of the 2024 Bancroft Prizes in American History and Diplomacy – known as one of the most distinguished and coveted awards in the field of American history.  

The annual award that honors “scope, significance, depth of research and richness of interpretation” in historical works, is presented by the Columbia University Libraries, and comes with a $10,000 award for each author. This year, 228 books were considered for the prize. 

West won for his latest work, Continental Reckoning: The American West in the Age of Expansion, which was published in 2023 by University of Nebraska Press. 

“I am so pleased professor West has received this most prestigious prize and outstanding recognition for his groundbreaking new book,” said Caree Banton, chair of the U of A’s Department of History. “He is an exceptional researcher, writer and scholar, and his work provides critical insights into the American West and even more so into this country’s past in ways that help us create a better world for our future.” 

The Bancroft Prizes selection jury described West’s work as an “epic story of the re-birth of the United States beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. This story is the history of America’s western expansion, a searing narrative explaining how the republic became a transcontinental nation. … 

“In short, in order to integrate the western half of the continent into the republic, the country had to undergo a radical transformation, a vast racial, social and political reordering that redefined the definition of citizenship and redefined relationships between government, industry and the people who created the modern United States,” they said in their jury statement. 

Based on years of intensive research, Continental Reckoning is a monumental re-telling of America's expansion westward from the 1840s to the end of the 19th century. It argues for a new understanding of the importance of the American West in U.S. history through a sweeping narrative that begins with the so-called Great Coincidence in early 1848, when gold was discovered in California barely a week before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded California and the Southwest to the United States. 

As West explains, these events launched dramatic new waves of migration and settlement westward and transformed the United States in ways often overshadowed by the emerging Civil War in the east. West untangles numerous events and trends, considering the impact of expansion on the Civil War and Reconstruction, on the growth of the national economy, and on the lives of Native American and Hispanic inhabitants and of settlers from the East impacted by the “fundamental restructuring” of Western spaces.  

The book also considers the West as a subject of myth, separating fact from fiction and emphasizing the “collective testimony-compelling, inspirational, horrifying, funny, bizarre of what it was like to live through one of the more telling chapters of our common past.” 

Long-time colleague, fellow historian and University Professor Jeannie Whayne said that West’s Continental Reckoning not only “represents a brilliant reconceptualization of American history but is also the result of an exceptional scholar who put his gifts of insight and perception to the task of answering some of the great questions of U.S. history.” 

“Elliott West is well known among historians as brilliant, and he has received many awards and accolades for his work as well as for his teaching,” she added. “Richard White, who has himself been called the best historian working in the field of western history, declared that Elliott — not he — was the best historian.” 

While receiving these prestigious accolades and awards were never the intent of West’s work, Whayne said, his winning so many “did not happen by accident.” 

“He brings to historical research a probing curiosity that he seems compelled to satisfy. He distills that information in sometimes surprising ways and conveys it in brilliant prose that is both graceful and captivating,” she said.  

West is a long-time faculty member at the U of A and retired in 2022 as Alumni Distinguished Professor of History emeritus, after 42 years of service. He is the author of nine scholarly books and nearly 90 articles and essays on the history of the American West. He has won numerous prizes for his research, including the Caughey Prize from the Western Historical Association, the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians and the Ray Allen Billington Prize from the Organization of American Historians.  

As a professor at the U of A, West has also been nationally recognized for his teaching and has won the SEC Faculty Achievement Award and Arkansas Professor of the Year recognition from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He was also named a finalist for the Robert Foster Cherry Award for outstanding classroom teacher in the nation. 

West and fellow 2024 Bancroft Prizes awardee Carolyn Woods Eisenberg will be honored at an April 18 ceremony at the Forum at Columbia University.  

The Bancroft Prizes were created in 1948 by the trustees of Columbia University, with a bequest from the historian Frederic Bancroft. Each year, provision is made for two annual prizes of equal rank to be awarded to the authors of distinguished works in either or both of the following categories: American History and Diplomacy. 

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research and Economic Development News.  

Contacts

Caree A. Banton, chair
Department of History
954-881-6439, cabanton@uark.edu

Andra Liwag, executive director of strategic communications
Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
479-575-4393, liwag@uark.edu

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