Scholar of World War II Homefront Wins American History Book Prize

Tracy Campbell, the author of “The Year of Peril: America in 1942,” has been named the winner of the New-York Historical Society’s Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize, which is given each year to the best work in the field of American history or biography.

The book, published by Yale University Press, challenges the public memory of the war years as a time of national unity and resolve. Instead, Campbell looks at the deep fractures within American society a year after Pearl Harbor, as a series of defeats in the Pacific and the struggle to create a beachhead in Europe seemed to bring the country to the brink of military defeat and splintering from within.

When the book was released last May, its resonances with the pandemic, which had struck with a Pearl Harbor-like suddenness and shock, were not lost on reviewers. George F. Will, writing in The Washington Post, called the book a challenge to “the saccharine myth that ‘everything changed’ in a nation united by the sense of ‘all being it this together.’”

In the book, Campbell, a professor at the University of Kentucky, wrote that he had started thinking about the book at an earlier moment of national shock, the 2008 financial crisis. In a statement about the prize, he said he hoped the book illustrated “the central importance of a functioning government, of individuals working toward something larger than themselves, and the resilience and fragility of democracy.”

“We live in a moment that demonstrates how we need to move past comfortable and reassuring myths, and to confront our history with a critical eye,” he said. “A fundamental premise of the book is that we can best understand a society by seeing it under its greatest stress.”

The book prize comes with a $50,000 award. Past winners include Rick Atkinson, Jane Kamensky, Eric Foner and Jill Lepore.

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