Calloway among National Book Award finalists

by Grayce Gibbs | 10/23/18 2:45am

History and Native American studies professor Colin Calloway’s book “The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation” is among four other finalists for the 2018 National Book Awards in nonfiction.

The National Book Foundation awards the prizes to recognize outstanding literary work published within the last year.

The results for the nonfiction award — along with awards for fiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature — will be announced on Nov. 14. A panel of five judges chose Calloway’s book from a list of 10 books narrowed down from publishers’ submissions of 546 books, according to executive director of the National Book Foundation Lisa Lucas.

The Indian World of George Washington tells the story of the great Native American leaders and tribes of the 18th century through the lens of George Washington’s life. Though not intended to be a biography, the book moves chronologically through Washington’s life, beginning with his early days as a surveyor of Native American lands and ending with his use of diplomacy and persuasion as president to appropriate land for the new nation.

“My belief is that Native American history is fundamental to understanding American history,” Calloway said. “I wanted to show how Native Americans shaped the life of the president, and that will show how Native Americans shaped the history of the nation at this crucial time.”

Calloway first received notice of his nomination in an email from a friend saying “Congratulations on the NBA.” Calloway said his “first thought was the National Basketball Association … I’m just a historian, I didn’t expect it.”

However, the qualifier of being “just” a historian was not necessary. According to Lucas, historians tell stories with “artistry and magic.”

“Nonfiction is such an interesting category because the art of biography is not necessarily analogous to the art of the historian or to the art of the memoirist,” Lucas said. “But we celebrate them all as artful, and I hope that when people see that medallion they are reminded that these [awards] are not just about the content, but about the storytelling.”

Calloway has spent more than five years working on this book, including a term spent writing and researching at Mount Vernon with a fellowship from the Washington Library. Having written most of the book while teaching in the Native American studies program, Calloway said he wanted to finish writing the book in “George Washington’s world.”

While working at Mt. Vernon, Calloway said he was able to get a better sense of his target audience.

“I was trying to reach people who didn’t normally read Native American history,” Calloway said. “If we can’t get people to read Native American history, get all those people who read about George Washington to read this, thinking they’re reading about George Washington, but they’re actually reading about Native American history.”

As he was writing the book, Calloway also taught Native American studies 55, “The First President and the First Americans: The Indian World of George Washington.”

“I had taught classes about books I had written before, but I had never taught a class about a book as I was writing it,” he said.

This term, Calloway is teaching Native American studies 14, “The Invasion of America: American Indian History Pre-Contact to 1800.”

Rachel Kesler ’19, a Native American studies and history double major, is currently in this class.

“Professor Calloway engages students in such a unique way,” she said. “He’s the kind of professor that by the second week of classes will know everybody’s name in a seventy-person lecture. He is also someone that does a great job balancing somewhat controversial material.”