While Woody Holton was finishing his last book, a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award, he felt a few pangs of guilt for his next project, a neglected biography on Abigail Adams. Holton, 50, is father of two toddlers, Beverly and Henry. And when he finally got around to the Adams book, he says he often thought: “I can either write an award-winning book or go home and play with my kids. And I always went home and played with my kids.”
“Abigail Adams,” the book, was supposed to be candy — quick cash for an easy project. The plan backfired. Later this month in New York City, Holton will accept the Bancroft Prize, among the most prestigious awards for American history writing.
Although he's self-consciously crafted his reaction to the award as one big “who me?” there seems to be some merit to the argument. His first two books, “Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia” and “Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution,” the National Book Award finalist, together took 30 years to write. This one took three. He also says this is the book where he got the most help. As a history professor at the University of Richmond, Holton taught Adams' letters and biographies to his undergrads, gleaning from their insights.
There are some nifty discoveries, though. Adams was a sort of proto-feminist, and Holton researched how she accumulated and hid assets at a time when married women weren't allowed to own property. Although many previous biographies of Adams mention her will, Holton realized she technically wasn't even supposed to have written one. Her husband's fidelity to it after her death was a kindness, not a requirement — especially after she left money only to female heirs and servants and nothing for her less-well-off male relations.
With this latest accolade for the increasingly decorated ranks of Richmond's historians, it may be time to inaugurate a new parlor game.
Ed Ayers, also a historian and the president of UR, won the Bancroft in 2004 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1992. Holton hasn't hit the trifecta, but is the son of a former governor. St. Petersburg University in Russia bestowed an honorary degree on former Virginia Commonwealth University president and Cold War historian Eugene Trani.
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