The Collegian
Thursday, February 22, 2024

Woody Holton honored as finalist for National Book Award

University of Richmond history professor Woody Holton is a finalist for the Nonfiction National Book Award.

Holton, who has been a professor at the Richmond since August 2000, spent 12 years writing the book, titled "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution," but he never imagined it would gain such recognition.

According to the National Book Foundation that sponsors this award, it is one given "to writers, from writers." Publishing companies nominate books for the award for one of five categories, which are then voted on by a panel of five judges who have also published works in that category. Authors selected as finalists receive $1,000 and a medal, and the winner receives $10,000 and a bronze statue of a book. In either case, the book's cover carries a National Book Award finalist or winner sticker.

The first call came to Holton three weeks ago while he was sitting in New York's LaGuardia Airport on his way to Buffalo for a radio interview about the book. He received a voicemail from the National Book Foundation asking him to call back. Not realizing what the foundation was, he figured it was a charity asking him to donate a few of his books. But when he called back, he was shocked to learn he had been nominated as a finalist for the award, he said.

"Holton is a very dedicated teacher, and this award shows that in order to be a recognized scholar, one does not have to short change students," said President Edward Ayers, a fellow historian whose 1992 book "The Promise of the New South" was also a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. "It's great that the wider population gets to see some of the great work we do here at UR. He is challenging history and asking questions. This goes to show the best teachers are the best scholars."

Ayers also said the nomination to be one of five finalists is especially impressive because there are thousands of great books that go unnoticed every year. He said it would give the university instant credibility and added to his bragging rights for his travels.

Holton originally intended to use the ideas in this book as a 15-page closing chapter in his first book, "Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia." It was while writing the final chapter that he realized that the material deserved a book of its own, he said.

But Holton had another reason for writing the second book: To redeem himself, he said. In 1990, Holton helped found a grassroots political group called "Clean Up Congress" to help elect pro-environmental senators and congressmen. While being interviewed at the time by Peter Overby for a National Public Radio report about grassroots politics, Holton quoted Madison's "Federalist No. 10" to support the idea of these groups, but he didn't quite feel right about the interview afterward. Upon checking his facts, he realized he had completely misinterpreted Madison's paper.

This book was kind of my self-punishment for misunderstanding James Madison when he was talking [about] Federalist No. 10," Holton said jokingly. "Now I read Federalist No. 10 as almost the opposite of what I said on NPR, which is what Madison really wants to do — get ordinary people out of politics. They wanted to put this genie of democracy back in the bottle."

Holton asserted in his book that the founding fathers who wrote the Constitution through the American Revolution had gotten out of hand and created too much democracy and that the democracy pendulum had swung too far and wanted to bring it back to the middle. Holton said they did this not because they did not love these citizens, but because they thought the citizens were not capable of making good choices.

Holton has always been fascinated with the origins of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and thinks non-academic history books tend to smooth things over and doesn't teach readers to be skeptics of history, he said. Holton instead finds it fun to question established opinions and thoughts.

Holton wrote his first book during a fellowship in Charlottesville, Va., and preferred writing outdoors. This led him overseas, mostly in poor countries. He traveled to the Andes, where he found a hotel for $13 per day, the Alps and into the mountains of northern Vietnam, but he found the most peace in Northern Ireland, he said.

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He wrote the book with "Barnes and Noble readers" in mind, he said, especially because he thought his first book was not fun enough to read. To make the second book more appealing to readers, he tried to incorporate more people, stories and suspense.

Another way Holton went about reaching a more common audience was by using a commercial publisher. University of North Carolina published his first book "Forced Founders" for $39.95, but "Unruly Americans," published by a commercial publisher, will cost only $27, which Holton hoped would help him reach a larger audience.

Although almost every review has misinterpreted the ideas he tried to convey in the book, he said, Holton added that he was not worried about any negative responses from the book because tenure gives people the right to have crazy ideas as long as they are based on evidence.

Retired Brown University professor Gordon Wood wrote "The Creation of the American Republic" in 1969, and it is widely considered the leading book on the origins of the Constitution. Because Holton's book is essentially the opposite, Holton said: "I'm on my knees praying that he writes a really mean review of it because I want him to notice it. I want him to have to deal with it."

Despite all of his awards, honors and recognition for his work thus far, the excitement of the National Book Award nomination has not waned for Holton. Holton said he was sure he could not have accomplished all he has without the support of his wife and all of the people at Richmond who have covered for him during the years leading up to the book's publication.

But the excitement of winning has allowed him to accomplish his goal of giving up coffee, he said, as he sat in his disheveled office in khakis and a light green scrub shirt. He said this "bolt-from-the-blue" honor has replaced it with endorphins, even weeks after the nomination.

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