'Genre-bending' biography of Joseph Conrad wins 2018's Cundill History Prize

'Genre-bending' biography of Joseph Conrad wins 2018's Cundill History Prize

Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff has won 2018's US$75,000 Cundill History Prize for her "genre-bending" and "immaculately researched" account of the life of Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad.

Jasanoff accepted the prize, the richest in non-fiction for a single work in English, for The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (published by William Collins in the UK) at a gala event held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday night (15th November).

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World combines history, biography, travelogue and literary criticism, as the 19th-century writer grapples with issues including migration, terrorism, and a communications revolution. It also reveals the stories behind some of his best-known works, The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and Nostromo. To win the prize, it beat three Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, Anne Applebaum, Ron Chernow and David I Kertzer, who were also shortlisted.

Announcing the jury’s decision, chair of the jury Mark Gilbert hailed The Dawn Watch "a striking portrait of an exceptional man and his times". He continued: "Maya Jasanoff is a visitor in Conrad’s world, a recreator of it and in some ways its judge. Capturing this world required remarkable research, an eye for telling detail, a roving spirit similar to Conrad’s own, and a gift for historical narrative. Fortunately, Jasanoff ’s pen, like Conrad’s, is a magic wand."

Fellow juror Peter Frankopan commended the book for being "immaculately researched". Jasanoff has sailed from East Asia to Europe on a cargo ship and travelled 1,000 miles down the Congo river for The Dawn Watch.

"And it is innovative too: part history, part travelogue, part literary criticism," he added. "I think that is one reason why it succeeds so well – because it is constantly challenging us to think about the period, the writer, the works and the places. It is like technicolour, bursting with life on each page.

"Walking in someone else’s steps is only part of the story; the skill is working out what can be learned from doing so – and perhaps most important of all, explaining that to readers. First class historical writing requires all of these to come together; and it is a lot harder than it sounds ... it really is an outstanding book by a brilliant scholar."

Jasanoff is Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University. She has previously been a finalist for the Cundill History Prize for her second book, Liberty’s Exile (William Collins, 2011), which was also shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, now the Baillie Gifford Prize.

Commenting on her win, Arabella Pike, William Collins publishing director and Jasanoff's editor said: "To write The Dawn Watch, Maya Jasanoff travelled up the Congo and across oceans in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad. Her roving spirit and brilliance as a writer and scholar have come together in a book that breaks the boundaries of conventional history or biography to offer not just a stunning account of Conrad’s life and work but of the globalised world we live in. We are thrilled and proud that her work has been awarded the Cundhill History Prize for 2018."

The two runners-up each received a Recognition of Excellence Award, together with US$10,000. They are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Caroline Fraser for her historical account of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books, and Sam White, a professor of history at Ohio State University, for an inter-disciplinary investigation into the decisive role the climate played in the success and failure of the first North American settlements.

Last year the Cundill History Prize was won by British historian Daniel Beer for The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars.