Columbia Alumna Beverly Gage Reflects on Winning a 2023 Bancroft Prize

Beverly Gage, a 2004 graduate of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, was recently awarded a Bancroft Prize for her book, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, a biography of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Reviewing it in The New York Times, Jennifer Szalai described the 837-page biography (the first of Hoover in nearly 30 years and drawing on a wealth of previously unreleased documents) as a “revelatory” account that “doesn’t rescue Hoover’s reputation but instead complicates it.” The annual award, one of the most prestigious in the field of American history, was celebrated with a public event and reception on April 20 at The Forum.

Gage signs books before the April 20 Bancroft Prize event. Photo: April Renae

Gage, who earned her Ph.D. in History from Columbia in 2004, is also a previous recipient of the Bancroft Dissertation Award – an honor that is celebrated at the same event each year. The Bancroft Dissertation Awards were established by the Trustees of Columbia University in 1963 to make possible the publication of up to two dissertations, successfully defended during the preceding year, in the areas of American history, diplomacy, or international relations. Gage won the award for her 2004 dissertation, “The Wall Street Explosion: Capitalism, Terrorism, and the 1920 Bombing in New York.”

Here, Gage reflects on the recognition, then and now.

Q: What do you remember about winning the Dissertation Award? Did you attend the Prize event?

Gage: It was a thrill to receive the Bancroft dissertation prize—my first academic writing prize. I had just been appointed as an assistant professor at Yale, so I journeyed down from New Haven for the dinner. Several of my advisers, including Eric Foner, were at both that dinner and this year’s Bancroft reception.

Gage in conversation with Margot Canaday, jury member for the 2023 Bancroft Prizes. Photo: April Renae

Q: As a historian, what is most meaningful to you about this year’s recognition?

Gage: The Bancroft Prize is especially meaningful because it covers the entire field of U.S. history and because it is conferred by a committee of historians who approach that field from an array of time periods and methodologies. As one of my Yale colleagues commented to me recently, this prize is one of the big ones!

Q: Since you won the Dissertation award, how has the field of historical scholarship changed? Over time, what has caused you to shift your thinking about your area of research?

Gage: When I was a graduate student at Columbia, the genre of biography and the field of political history were not necessarily in the highest repute. But my adviser, Alan Brinkley, was a great believer in both approaches and a model of how to do them well. The fact that G-Man won the Bancroft is not only a thrill for me personally, but a testament to the profession’s successful rethinking of these forms.

Q: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were working on this book? What lessons or insights do you want readers to take away?

Gage: I wanted this book to speak to both a scholarly and a public audience. Some of my goals were a bit nerdy and academic—putting the history of conservatism and the field of American political development in conversation with each other, for instance. But I also wanted to explore vital questions of interest to a broader public: How did J. Edgar Hoover remain in power for so long (48 years as head of the FBI!) and what does that tell us about the growth of the federal government—and the nature of our democracy—over the course of the 20th century?

2023 Bancroft Prize winners (left to right): Beverly Gage, Kelly Lytle Hernández, and John Wood Sweet. Photo: April Renae

Q: Can you reflect a little bit about your research process (then and now!), and especially the ways archival research played a role?

Gage: Researching J. Edgar Hoover has outsized advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that Hoover ran a gigantic bureaucracy and insisted that his employees write things down. As a result, though, there is far too much material for any single historian to digest. Another disadvantage is that Hoover was rather fond of secrecy, so it can still be difficult for historians to find out what we want to know.

Q: Who are the people that supported you throughout the research and writing of this book? Are there mentors who you’ve kept in touch with since your time at Columbia?

Gage: I had a stellar team of mentors and advisers at Columbia: Alan Brinkley, Eric Foner, Betsy Blackmar, Ken Jackson, Simon Schama—the list goes on and on. Alan passed away in 2019; I was grateful to be able to participate in a conference in his honor, organized by several of his other Columbia advisees, a few years before he died. At this point, I’ve been on the Yale faculty for almost 20 years, so I like to think I can more or less stand on my own. But as all Ph.D.s know, we never really escape our advisers’ influence! I also had a magnificent editor at Viking, Wendy Wolf. She has published many prize-winning books over the last few decades–but this was her first Bancroft.

The 2023 Bancroft Prize Jury made the following statement about Gage’s winning work:

“Beverly Gage’s stunning biography of J. Edgar Hoover, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, both perfects and transcends its genre. The first biography about 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 (FOIA) 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. … Villainizing Hoover lets the rest of us off the hook, Gage concludes, skillfully shifting her account from one man’s life to a history of the twentieth century writ large, and never for a moment losing command of her vast subject.”