Stephen Platt wins 2012 Cundill Prize in History at McGill

Posted on Friday, November 30, 2012

Author Stephen Platt is flanked by Arts Dean Christopher Manfredi (left) and the Honourable Michael Meighen, co-chair of Campaign McGill. / Photo: Owen Egan.

Book on Chinese civil war earns $75,000 prize, largest international prize for work on history

By McGill Reporter Staff

A fascinating account of what is described as the most destructive civil war in the modern world has captured the richest prize for historical literature.

Author Stephen Platt is the winner of the 2012 Cundill Prize in History at McGill University for his book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, The West, And The Epic Story of The Taiping Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf).

The announcement was made at a gala dinner held last night in Montreal. At $75,000 (USD), the Cundill Prize is the largest international literary prize for a work on history.

“I never intended to become a historian – I was a math major who ended up in the English department,” said Platt, Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). “It was only in the course of a two-year teaching position in the Hunan province after college that I began to take a serious interest in how the past and present interweave.

“As most who practice history know, the truth can indeed be more wondrous than fiction.”

Platt’s book was one of three shortlisted by the Cundill jury in October. The finalists were chosen from 142 eligible submissions, representing publishing houses from around the world.

The finalists were introduced at the awards ceremony by jury member Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist. In addition to Simpson, this year’s Cundill Jury included Executive Vice-President of Brown-Forman Corporation, Garvin Brown; Charles Kesler, Professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College; and Vanessa Schwartz, Professor in the Department of History at the University of Southern California.

The two other finalists, Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (Allen Lane), and Andrew Preston – Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Alfred A. Knopf Canada) were awarded “Recognition of Excellence” prizes of $10,000 (USD) each.

“All three finalists are, of course, winners of a substantial prize” said Christopher Manfredi, Dean of McGill’s Faculty of Arts, which awards the prize. “We are so appreciative of this year’s Cundill jury members, who tackled a huge task with such respect to the prize. It was important to the jury that the books be accessible to a general audience and they have done a terrific job.

“The three books really are winners and the grand prize winner is just a step above. I am sure that everyone will gain new insight by reading any or all of these books.”

Rather than portraying it as an exotic, otherworldly “Middle Kingdom” removed from the course of events in the West, Platt’s winning book describes China in the 1860s a country deeply integrated into the world’s economy and home to thousands of foreigners. And, as it descended into civil war, the Western powers were watching.

The Taiping Rebellion was a conflict with threads that reached around the world – intertwining with, among other events, the simultaneous Civil War in the United States. Its resolution was to a significant degree determined by outsiders. For the West, it proved a dark warning of the perils of involvement in foreign wars and a reminder of just how difficult it can be – in hindsight – to distinguish between humanitarian intervention and imperialism.

The Cundill Prize in History at McGill is the world’s most important international historical literature prize, with a grand prize of $75,000 (USD) and two ‘recognition of excellence’ prizes of $10,000 (USD). The prize was established in 2008 by McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill, who passed away in January 2011, and is administered by McGill University’s Dean of Arts, with the help of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC).

The Honourable Michael Meighen, co-chair of Campaign McGill,  announced at last night’s awards ceremony that a new $6.7-million gift from the Cundill Foundation to McGill University’s Faculty of Arts will permanently endow the  Prize, as well as the Peter Cundill Fellowships for graduate students in the Department of History (two awards per year valued at $25,000 each).

More information on the gift  can be found here.

For more information on the Peter Cundill Prize in History, click here.

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