Fischer wins 2005 Pulitzer in history for "Washington's Crossing"Released on April 07, 2005
Read coverage of his colleagues' reaction at bottomUniversity Professor David Hackett Fischer, the internationally esteemed historian, has won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Washington's Crossing.
"I'm surprised, amazed and delighted," said Fischer, in a phone interview from his home less than two hours after hearing that he'd won the prize. "I never expected to win." The Pulitzer winners for 2005 were announced April 4.
The award for Fischer marks the second time that a faculty member from the History Department at Brandeis has won a Pulitzer. Leonard W. Levy won in 1969 for his book, Origins of the 5th Amendment.
Washington's Crossing chronicles a major turning point in the American Revolution, when in December 1776 George Washington led a weary band across the Delaware and attacked troops fighting for the British. Kirkus Reviews said the book marked, "A superb addition to the literature of the Revolution, by one of the best chroniclers in the business." Publishers Weekly also raved about the work in a starred review: "At the core of an impeccably researched, brilliantly executed military history is an analysis of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776, and the resulting destruction of the Hessian garrison of Trenton and defeat of a British brigade at Princeton. Fischer's perceptive discussion of the strategic, operational and tactical factors involved is by itself worth the book's purchase."
Fischer has been at Brandeis since 1962. American Heritage has called him "one of the most imaginative historians in contemporary America." He is also the author of such acclaimed volumes as Albion's Seed, The Great Wave, Paul Revere's Ride, and Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas. He is the co-editor, with James M. McPherson, of the Pivotal Moments in American History series published by Oxford University Press.
Following are excerpts from the original Oxford University Press news release for Washington's Crossing, which was published in February 2004.
Pivotal Moments in American History series:
"Everybody knows the history painting, but few people know the history. The image has become icon-few American artworks have been more often reproduced, or more often parodied-and like all icons it has come to obscure the truth it represents. But the reality of Washington's crossing the Delaware is even more dramatic than the picture. And as David Hackett Fischer shows in this captivating book, Washington's Crossing, what happened on Christmas night in 1776 is a crucial and underappreciated turning point in American history.
Six months after the Declaration of Independence, many Americans felt the Revolution was lost. The rebel army had been chased from New York and across New Jersey; the British lay in sight of Philadelphia. In the midst of a howling storm, George Washington led what was left of his troops across the ice-choked Delaware River, surprised a Hessian force at Trenton, then repulsed a furious British counterattack. Almost trapped again by the larger British force, Washington stole behind the enemy overnight and struck them again at Princeton. Within weeks, the British hold on New Jersey was broken and the British strategy was in ruins.
Not only did Washington's astonishing success save the faltering American Revolution from collapse. But, as David Hackett Fischer shows, the campaign saw the evolution of a new style of military leadership, as well as a new, American ethic of warfare, that helped to turn the tide of public opinion in America and around the world. It was a moral victory with a potent material effect-a fitting subject for our series, Pivotal Moments in American History. Washington's Crossing is the kind of rare work that is at once so rich in original research, full of fresh historical insight, and such a riveting narrative. Fischer describes, for example, how the people of New Jersey created Washington's opportunity, as they rose against their occupiers in guerrilla attacks that unnerved and wore down the overextended garrisons. (Contrary to legend, the Hessians weren't drunk on Christmas, just exhausted.) He makes us feel the growing unease among the occupying troops as they realize they are losing control of the countryside. And we feel, too, the stoic determination of Washington, as he stakes his command, his reputation, and the fate of the Revolution, on a daring gamble. The password he chose for his sentries that night was, Fischer tells us, 'Victory or Death.'"
From The Daily News Tribune, colleagues relate their reaction to the prize:
Pulitzer Prize-winning author has a love of history
By Catherine Sheffield / Daily News Correspondent
Thursday, April 7, 2005
David Hackett Fisher says he used to think of himself as a professor and historian.
"Now," said Fischer, "I like to think of myself as a teacher and a storyteller.
On Monday, Fischer, a longtime Brandeis history professor and a resident of Wayland, received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for history making him not just any "storyteller" but, according to his colleagues, one of the finest of our time.
"I'm always amazed that they pay me to do this," Fischer said. "I've been facinated with history as far back as I can remember."
Fischer recalls a story that his 90-year-old grandmother once told him. She was sleeping one night when she heard a sound like wind rustling through the trees,"but when she went outside there was no wind."
As she leaned out her window she saw that the sound she had heard was the wounded being brought back from the battle at Gettysburg.
"That's the stuff that gets me," Fischer said, " I can feel it, it's as if I was there. I live the whole continuum," he said, "past, present and future."
Fischer's wife, Judy, says the night they heard the good news, they went out to dinner at Legal Seafoods, but she said Fischer is so immersed in his next novel, a book on Samuel De Chamberlain, he hardly has time to celebrate.
When talking about De Chamberlain Judy said, "He lives with us right now."
She said that when Fischer researches a historical figure, the characters become like members of their household.
"I spend my working hours with them, they live in my thoughts. It's a delight to be in (De Chamberlain's) company right now."
Fischer said he's thrilled to receive the honor.
"It's a little bit like being struck by lightning," he said. "I'm just amazed, I really never expected this."
He said the best thing about winning is hearing from old friends and students. He said he has received a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls since the winners were announced. One of the e-mails was from former student Joann Levin. Now a lawyer in Maryland, Levin said she changed her major to American history after taking Fischer's course. After graduating from Brandeis, she went on to grad school in the field.
"Dr. Fischer read each student's essays, in contrast to other professors, who delegated this job to teaching assistants. He encouraged undergraduates to do original research with creativity. He also stressed the importance of writing history with clear and lively prose," Levin said.
Fischer is in his 85th semester at Brandeis University, he said he loves the 85th semester as much as he loved the first.
"It's never the same twice. That's what I love, " he said. "Every semester's different."
Professor Mark Hulliung, who has taught in the Brandeis history department alongside Fischer for the past 30 years, said Fischer is not just a teacher of graduate students. Fischer's greatest joy is teaching undergraduates, he says.
Every year, Fischer's class enrollments are among the highest in the department, he says.
Hulliung also says Fischer has a knack for reaching beyond an academic audience and connecting with the greater public. A great example of that, Hulliung says, was the popularity of Fischer's 1994 book, "Paul Revere's Ride," which at one time was considered for a movie, but it never got off the ground.
"What David has done is combine modern storytelling, using the most recent approaches, with good old fashioned history," he said.
In his writing, Fischer says he uses a form called braided narrative, braiding the statistical, factual reconstruction with the human side of the stories.
After working with executives in Hollywood he says he also realizes weaving multiple story lines can keep the readers interest longer.
"In the past I tried to adapt screenplays from my novels," he said, " and the Hollywood executives would always tell me to 'save the reveal.' For the longest time I couldn't figure out what they meant by that."
Fischer says he realizes what they were trying to tell him was to hold the suspense longer. He said by using a braided narrative and weaving multiple story lines, it allows him to "save the reveal" while sticking to the facts and the correct chronology of events.
In doing research for his novels, Fischer goes to great extents to get the most acurate information possible. For "Paul Revere's Ride" he took horse-riding lessons. To get a sense of what Washington experienced, he boarded a boat and took his own trip across the Delaware and he said, for his latest book, "Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History," he even consulted experts on rattlesnakes to gleen the meaning of the the rattlesnake on the Pennsylvania flag that reads "Don't tread on me."
"He looks at history as an inquiry and each inquiry is to solve a problem, which leads to another inquiry," Judy said. "He works with a specific question, one at a time," said his wife.
"Washington's Crossing" examines how the general's famed crossing of the Delaware River fits into the con of the Revolutionary War.
In his review in the Philadelphia Enquirer, John Freeman writes that "Washington's Crossing" resurrects the moment and "wipes away the smudges of history, revealing Washington's plan to be equal parts, boldness and desperation - a beneficiary of chance." Professor Paul Jankowski, chairman of the Brandeis history department, says the Pulitzer seems a "fitting honor" for Fischer.
"He draws thousands of readers in the U.S. and beyond," Jankowski said. "His history is not pop history, not the typical coffee table book, nor does it suffer from pedantic obscurity."
Associate Professor of History Alice Kelikian said she is thrilled about the honor.
"David is the most imaginative historian of early America working today. Unlike so many historians of the late 20th century, he links the new social history to the great themes of American political history, and all this with rich archival research and grand narrative sweep."
submitted by Dennis Nealon