East was east, but in a setting slightly different from that envisioned by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. when he first proposed the Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards in 1979.

Or so Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) would have his guests believe yesterday at the first annual awards luncheon when a $2,500 first prize and two honorable mentions were presented to the winners by Ethel Kennedy at the senator's McLean home.

"Arthur thought the presentation ceremony ought to be in a particularly prominent place. So I want to welcome you to the East Room -- the East Room of my house," said Edward Kennedy.

If Kennedy was unable to keep his part of the bargain by holding the even north of the Potomac rather than south, Schlesinger, at least, kept his by endowing the awards with proceeds from his biography, "Robert Kennedy and His Times."

All three awards were for nonfiction. First-place winner was Duke University Prof. William H. Chafe for his book, "Civilities and Civil Rights Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom." Receiving honorable mentions were John Langston Gwaltney for "Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America" and John Gaventa for "Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley."

"The response to this award shows that the ideals and passions of Robert Kennedy during his lifetime are still vital, and my conviction is that they will become even more vital," Schlesinger told the winners, their families, Robert F. Kennedy Foundation officers, Kennedy offspring, book awards chairman John Seigenthaler, who is publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, and two of the four judges, poet Rose Styron and attorney Marian Wright Edelman.

Altogether, 105 books competed for the awards, "an immense pleasure to me even in this bleak year from the point of view of social injustice," said Schlesinger. "The political stream may be at a low ebb, but the literary stream has not dried up." Noting the absence of fiction among the awards winners, Schlesinger said the committee was looking for a future "Grapes of Wrath" or an "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Seigenthaler, presiding at the four-course luncheon, lauded Schlesinger's "vision, insight and conviction" that the awards would encourage men and women of letters to write about the social inequities to which Robert Kennedy had devoted much of his efforts. "I don't know a better time to recapture that spirit than on this day, this week, this month, in this city."

Ted Kennedy put it another way. "As a member of the Senate who sees the Senate and the House addressing the voting rights act and fair housing issues we thought we attended to in the period of the 1960s when Robert Kennedy was active, we have to ask ourselves about the nature of the commitment of our own nation toward the continued progress of full opportunity in society."