National Book Award Winners Are Honored in N.Y.

Of the winning
Of the winning "Shadow Country," Peter Matthiessen said, "It took me 30 years to pull together." The book links three novels he published in the '90s. (By Ed Betz -- Associated Press)
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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

NEW YORK, Nov. 19 -- Annette Gordon-Reed won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night for "The Hemingses of Monticello," her multigenerational portrait of a family once lost to American history.

Accepting the award, Gordon-Reed spoke of "the journey that black people in this country have been on" since the Hemingses were owned by Thomas Jefferson. Referring to the election of Barack Obama, she added that all of America is "on a great journey now."

Peter Matthiessen won the fiction award for perhaps the most unusual of the evening's nominated books. "Shadow Country" is a heavily reworked, 900-page version of three linked novels Matthiessen published in the 1990s based on the life of the legendary Florida pioneer, murderer and murder victim Edgar J. Watson.

"This book was quite a trial for everybody, including me," Matthiessen said. "It took me 30 years to pull together." He hadn't prepared any remarks, he said, because he worried what he'd do with that "pathetic little speech" in his pocket if he didn't win.

Mark Doty won the poetry award for "Fire to Fire." Judy Blundell took the young people's literature award for "What I Saw and How I Lied."

The nonfiction finalists included historian and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust for "This Republic of Suffering," Washington-based New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer for "The Dark Side," Jim Sheeler for "Final Salute" and Joan Wickersham for "The Suicide Index."

The other fiction finalists were Aleksandar Hemon for "The Lazarus Project," Rachel Kushner for "Telex From Cuba," Marilynne Robinson for "Home" and Salvatore Scibona for "The End." Kushner's and Scibona's novels were their first.

The awards dinner changed venue this year, to the grand Greek revival ballroom at Cipriani Wall Street, in a building that formerly housed both the New York Stock Exchange and the headquarters of the National City Bank. Given what's happening down the street at the current Exchange, with the Dow dropping below 8,000 just a few hours before, the pre-dinner chatter kept cycling around to the economy.

"It's like you pick up a newspaper and the headline is 'Confederates Fire on Fort Sumter,' " said Faust's husband, Charles Rosenberg, using a historical allusion appropriate to his wife's Civil War specialty.

"Pretty soon all banks will be restaurants," Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin said jokingly, going on to say that right now, "I'd rather be in the book business than the banking business -- but not by much."

"Are we hearing the string quartet playing on the deck of the Titanic yet?" Public Affairs Executive Editor Clive Priddle asked.

But there was hope.

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