Yale historian’s book on J. Edgar Hoover wins prestigious Bancroft Prize
“G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century,” a 2022 biography of the controversial FBI director by Yale historian Beverly Gage, is among three books to win this year’s Bancroft Prize, one of the nation’s top honors in the field of American history.
The Bancroft Prizes are awarded annually by Columbia University for books published in the previous year, and judged by a panel of distinguished historians “in terms of scope, significance, depth of research, and richness of interpretation that they present in the areas of American history and diplomacy.” The prize includes a $10,000 award for each author.
This year’s other Bancroft Prize-winners are “Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands” (W.W. Norton), by UCLA’s Kelly Lytle Hernández, and “The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America” (Henry Holt), by the University of North Carolina’s John Wood Sweet. The three winners were chosen from 197 books submitted for consideration.
Gage’s acclaimed book portrays Hoover, who led the FBI or its precursor for nearly a half-century, in a more nuanced light than previous biographies. Her work was drawn from previously unreleased information about his family life and government service, some of which the Yale historian obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
In an interview with Yale News shortly after the book’s publication, Gage, a professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), said writing “G-Man” was “an opportunity to take [Hoover] a little more seriously — to think of him not as this one-dimensional villain but to consider his impact and influence on American government and politics.”
In announcing the winners, the Bancroft Prize jury said, “Beverly Gage’s stunning biography of J. Edgar Hoover … both perfects and transcends its genre. The first biography of Hoover written in 30 years, Gage has done exhaustive research in recently released materials that earlier biographers could not access and deftly used the Freedom of Information Act as well. The result of this hard sleuthing, as well as of Gage’s formidable interpretive skill, is a Hoover pulled back from the villainous caricature that we thought we knew.”
The jurors also praised Gage for “skillfully shifting her account from one man’s life to a history of the 20th century writ large, and never for a moment losing command of her vast subject.”
“The awarding of this prize to Beverly Gage celebrates her remarkable archival and narrative acumen — nobody who read this book will walk away thinking the same way about 20th-century America,” said Kathryn Lofton, dean of the humanities in the FAS and interim FAS dean. “Serious history takes serious time, and we couldn’t be any prouder at Yale to support the practice of history at its highest level.”
“G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” was listed among the top 10 books of 2022 by the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and Publishers Weekly, and was on The New York Times’ list of the 100 best books of 2022. The New Yorker chose it as one of its 24 “Essential Reads” of 2022 and the Smithsonian named it one of the 10 best history books. The biography is a nominee for the $10,000 Mark Lynton History Prize, one of three Lukas Prize Project book awards.
“Beverly Gage is a widely recognized scholar, teacher, and citizen, both of Yale and the United States, and in ‘G-Man,’ all her talents are on display,” said Alan Mikhail, the Chace Family Professor of History and chair of Yale’s history department. “With its empirical ballast and creative argumentation, the book teaches us all something about the nature of citizenship and, in so doing, advances a new history of 20th-century America. The Bancroft Prize is a worthy testament to this achievement.”
Gage is also the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror,” which examined the 1920 Wall Street bombing. A Yale alumna (she graduated with a B.A. in 1994), she teaches courses on American politics, government, and social movements. She was elected by President Joe Biden in 2021 to serve on the National Humanities Council.
Among the other Yale historians who have won Bancroft Prizes are David Blight, Sterling Professor of American History, who won the prize in 2019 for his book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”; Greg Grandin, the Woodward Professor of History, for “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World” (2015); the late Edmund S. Morgan, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, for “Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America” (1989); and the late David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus for “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution” (1976).