George Mason professor among finalists for $50,000 history prize

Cynthia Kierner, History/Art History (Courtesy of Washington College) George Mason University professor Cynthia Kierner is a finalist for the $50,000 George Washington Book Prize. (Courtesy of Washington College)

Cynthia Kierner, a history professor at George Mason University, is one of four finalists announced today for the George Washington Book Prize. The $50,000 award, co-sponsored by Washington College in Chestertown, Md., the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the Mount Vernon museum, is the largest prize given for a work of early American history.

Kierner was nominated for her latest book, “Martha Jefferson Randolph: Daughter of Monticello” (Univ. of North Carolina Press), which examines the early American era through the life of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter.

Kierner said via email that she chose to study Martha Jefferson Randolph “because she was in many ways a representative wife, mother and plantation mistress.” As the daughter of President Jefferson, Martha left behind records that offer “a nearly unique opportunity to write an in-depth biography of a woman who lived primarily in rural Virginia during the revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras.” But Martha also traveled to France, helped shape her father’s public image, and met a variety of the most famous people of the era. Kierner said that she wanted to show “how women engaged with politics and social life . . . long before suffrage.”

The other three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize are:

“Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire” (Harvard), by Eliga Gould, chair of the history department at the University of New Hampshire. His book offers an international perspective on the American Revolution.

“George Washington: Gentleman Warrior” (Quercus), by British-born Stephen Brumwell, who works as a historian on TV and radio programs in Amsterdam. His book focuses on Washington as a soldier.

“Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood” (Cambridge), by Brian Steele, a history professor at the University of Alabama (Birmingham). His biography sheds new light on the founder who articulated American principles of self-government.

The president of Mount Vernon, Curt Viebranz, said in a statement, “There is a misperception about early-American history – that the era has been explored to its capacity, which is why it is so important to recognize the groundbreaking work of the scholars nominated for the George Washington Book Prize.”

A jury of historians selected the four finalists from nearly 50 entries published during 2012. The winner will be announced on May 22 at Mount Vernon.

charlesr@washpost.com

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.

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