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December 3, 2008

Historians Peter Brown, Romila Thapar Named Recipients of $1 Million 2008 Kluge Prize for Study of Humanity

Peter Robert Lamont Brown and Romila Thapar will receive the 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity in a ceremony Dec. 10 at the Library of Congress. They are the sixth and seventh recipients since the Prize’s 2003 inception.

Endowed by Library of Congress benefactor John W. Kluge, the Kluge Prize is unique among all international prizes at the $1 million level in rewarding a very wide range of disciplines including history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics, as well as a great variety of cultural perspectives in the world. Each awardee will receive half of the $1 million prize.

Both Brown, 73, and Thapar, 77, brought dramatically new perspectives to understanding vast sweeps of geographical territory and a millennium or more of time in, respectively, Europe and the Middle East, and in the Indian subcontinent. Brown brought conceptual coherence to the field of late antiquity, looking anew at the end of the Roman Empire, the emergence of Christianity, and the rise of Islam within and beyond the Mediterranean world. Thapar created a new and more pluralistic view of Indian civilization, which had seemed more unitary and unchanging, by scrutinizing its evolution over two millennia and searching out its historical consciousness.

The scholarship of both broadened and deepened over time as they marshaled a vast range of evidence from an expanding range of sources and a bewildering array of languages to bring a new comprehensive understanding of large questions of human development. They addressed their scholarship not only to specialists, but also intentionally shared their insights with broader lay audiences. In re-imagining familiar worlds with eyes unprejudiced by existing paradigms, they each opened large areas of human experience to new historical inquiry.

Commenting on Peter Brown, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said: "He is one of the most readable and literary historians of our time, having brought to life both a host of fascinating, little-known people from ordinary life during the first millennium of Christianity, as well as a monumental biography of the most prolific and famous St. Augustine."

One scholar reviewing nominations for the Kluge Prize wrote: "Peter Brown ranks with the greatest historians of the last three centuries." Another said: "There are few scholars in the world today who have changed their fields as much as Peter Brown has changed the study of what we used to call ancient and medieval history."

Remarking on Romila Thapar, Dr. Billington said: "She has used a wide variety of ancient sources and of languages, and introduced modern social science perspectives to help us better understand the richness and diversity of traditional Indian culture. And she, like Brown, has written a great biography of one of its giants, the Buddhist emperor Asoka."

Her prolific writings have set a new course for scholarship about the Indian subcontinent and for the writing of history textbooks in India. One scholarly reviewer said that "Thapar’s rigorous professional standards are cast against a background of her implicit appreciation of an India that accommodates civilizational diversity." Another said: "Thapar’s relentless striving for historical truth–independent of the superimposition of vacillating, fashionable theories of current sociopolitical conditions–is a landmark in the global writing of history."

THE SELECTION PROCESS

First awarded in 2003, the Kluge Prize is international; the recipient may be of any nationality, writing in any language. The main criterion for a recipient is deep and sustained intellectual accomplishment in the study of humanity that has an impact beyond narrow academic disciplines.

The process that led to the selection of Brown and Thapar began nearly a year ago. In search of those individuals worldwide who have demonstrated a lifetime of excellence and innovation in the study of the human condition, the Librarian of Congress sought nominations for the Kluge Prize from every corner of the world. Some 3,000 letters requesting nominations went out to a broad range of institutions and individuals knowledgeable about quality scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

The recipients included a broad range of university and college presidents, scholarly associations and research institutes, as well as individual scholars, writers, and selected friends of the Library.

In order to broaden the international pool, the Librarian of Congress also asked the Library’s large number of knowledgeable foreign Area Specialists to provide nominations for the prize based on their areas of expertise and to identify outstanding universities in each country from which nominations were solicited.

The nomination process was also opened to the general public via the Internet. This process resulted in 286 outstanding individuals from 90 nations.

These nominations were reviewed by a committee of the Library’s expert curators and specialists, who then conducted extensive biographical and bibliographical research to gather written critiques, writing samples, and multiple peer reviews for each candidate.

The first review of the most competitive nominees was conducted by the Scholars Council, a select group of preeminent scholars from around the world. Following their guidance, a group of 11 was chosen as "finalists." For these 11, Library staff conducted deepened research and presented detailed dossiers on each finalist for a five-member final review panel of top outside scholars. After deliberating as a group at the Library, each member of the panel submitted his or her own detailed individual recommendations to the Librarian, who then made the final selection.

Brown and Thapar, who will officially receive the Kluge Prize on Dec. 10, 2008, at the Library of Congress, will both return to the Library next year to present a scholarly discussion of their respective bodies of work.

PETER ROBERT LAMONT BROWN

As both scholar and teacher, Peter Brown has worked at the highest level of scholarly intensity and creativity for more than 40 years. His books have captivated thousands of readers, and his celebrated lectures and seminars have inspired students and younger scholars around the world. A scholarly Prospero whose magic consists in equal parts of learning and eloquence, Brown has opened up our understanding of the world of late antiquity and has reformulated the history of the Mediterranean world from the 2nd or 3rd century to the 11th century C.E., as a coherent historical period marked not by the tragic death of an old civilization but by the difficult birth of a new one.

Brown launched his career with an extraordinary biography, "Augustine of Hippo" (1967). Drawing on the massive traditions of historical and ecclesiastical scholarship, he sought to understand the experiences and sensibilities that characterized the various phases of Augustine’s life. Brown offered profound interpretations of the most demanding of Augustine’s writings, presenting his analyses in vivid prose that does justice to technical scholarly debates while still remaining accessible to non-specialists.

In 1971 Brown brought out what remains perhaps his most effective synthesis, "The World of Late Antiquity." Using a vast range of sources, visual as well as verbal, he described the evolution of pagan philosophy and the rise of Christianity as part of a single social world. Fascinated by the figures of saints who spent their lives on pillars and hermits and monks who inhabited desert sites, Brown tried to enter their worlds and empathetically to imagine the reasons for their actions. He also traced the story of late antiquity forward into the rise of new empires and civilizations in Persia, the Islamic world, and in Byzantium as well as Western Europe. Brown saw 200–1000 C.E. as a whole period that had not previously been seen as such; and he set the agenda for a new field of study and influenced many in other areas.

In a series of articles and chapters written over 25 years, Brown contemplated the figure of "the holy man," and wrote about that in the context of community networks and embodiments of the central value system of Christianity. As Brown’s knowledge of the Near East and its languages widened, he came to understand that in many ways these figures were unremarkable when seen in their context.

Brown in his "Cult of the Saints" (1981) put to rest the tendency to think of a theological elite as separate from a superstitious, pagan populace. His "The Body and Society" (1988), an extension of his work on Augustine, inquires deeply into the meanings of a life devoted to holiness, as seen in the works of great Christian thinkers. It helped create the new field of "body history," so important for psychohistory and gender scholarship. He saw asceticism not as rejection of the world but as, in complicated ways, a powerful force within it.

As Brown developed a capacity in Arabic, Persian, Syriac and Turkish, as well as in the major classical and European languages, he reconceived Western history from the sixth to the 11th century as a pan-Mediterranean era in which Islam played a fundamental role, and he saw the rise of Christianity as the emergence of a new social and intellectual world long before the Renaissance.

ROMILA THAPAR

The pre-eminent historian of early India, Romila Thapar opened the study of that rich, ancient civilization to habits of inquiry and conceptual frameworks arising out of the modern social sciences. She formulated new questions about the social development of nearly 2,000 years of Indian history and challenged existing paradigms of historians from both the colonial era and from the more recent nationalists. Making innovative use of familiar archeological and literary sources and mining new data, she stretched our understanding of this continental nation of more than 1 billion people.

Her iconoclastic approach is not without controversy, but the cutting-edge research that she and like-minded colleagues advanced has profoundly changed the way India’s past is understood both at home and across the world. However future generations ultimately evaluate her conclusions, her opening up of an era and her intellectual integrity in humanistic study have had great impact in and beyond India.

At the beginning of her career, Thapar challenged the conventional historiography. In her "History of India" (1966), she broke from the prominently held view of an unchanging India characterized by a past and static Golden Age. This work accelerated the adaptation of the social sciences in Indian universities and quickly became a teaching text in Indian schools.

She portrays complex interplay among political, economic, social, religious and other factors, and always takes a holistic approach. Faced with the absence of reliable dating, she finds new information in ancient texts–Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Jain–in Old Tamil traditions and folklore, and she integrates it all with findings from archaeology, numismatics, linguistics and inscriptions.

Thapar completely revised and greatly increased the size and scope of her "History of India" in 2002. Thapar acknowledges the uncertainties involved in writing history in the absence of a reliable written record. She also presents her view of the most likely interpretation of the evidence. Thapar has written or coauthored 15 substantial books, beginning in 1962 with her major biography of Asoka.

Thapar’s work has reached beyond the academy and into school textbooks, and her perspective on Indian history has placed her in the midst of contentious debates. Thapar has persistently championed a history grounded in evidence drawn from multiple sources in multiple languages from all levels of society across time. Willing to revisit her conclusions, she has also consistently sought to counter simplifications not borne out by the evidence and to support, implicitly, an appreciation for a pluralistic view India. An emeritus professor of Ancient Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who has held visiting posts and received honorary degrees from universities on three continents, Thapar has made an enduring contribution to India and the world that lies with her role in innovating methodologies for historical research and her transforming our knowledge of Indian history.

PAST RECIPIENTS

The cumulative contribution of Kluge Prize winners is remarkable for deep scholarship, relentless inquiry, international breadth, and the impact of their work on audiences beyond the academy:

  • Leszek Kolakowski (2003) magisterially established, as a philosopher from within the Soviet Empire, the intellectual bankruptcy of Marxist ideology and argued for the tolerance of diversity and a continuing search for transcendence to reestablish individual dignity. His voice was influential in Europe as a whole and provided the intellectual backbone for the Solidarity movement in Poland.
  • Jaroslav Pelikan (2004) analyzed two millennia of documents concerning the history and practice of worship, and doctrinal and creedal forms of Christian history. He wrote the most definitive study of any major religion in the 20th century, brought the Eastern or Orthodox tradition into the hitherto largely Western story, and compiled an inventory of today’s vibrant and varied forms of African Christianity.
  • Paul Ricoeur (2004), working at a high level of philosophical analysis and explication, drew on the entire tradition of Western philosophy to explore enduring common problems in the nature of human responsibility, by analyzing modern writers deeply and providing an enduring model of humanistic criticism for a wide variety of disciplines.
  • John Hope Franklin (2006) mined the documentary record of African American history and demonstrated that African Americans have been active agents in shaping both their own and the nation’s history. His pioneering and varied scholarly work transformed thinking about American history and society and established African American history as a key area of professional study and popular understanding.
  • Yu Ying-shih’s (2006) work spans Chinese history, thought and culture across many disciplines, vast time periods and enduring issues. The most widely read and discussed contemporary cultural historian writing in Chinese, Yu and his work are well known throughout the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other nations of East Asia. He has rescued the Confucian heritage from caricature and neglect and has stimulated new generations to rediscover the richness and variety of traditional Chinese culture after the ravages of Mao’s "cultural revolution."

Through a generous endowment from John W. Kluge, the Library of Congress established the Kluge Center in 2000 to bring together the world’s best thinkers to stimulate and energize one another to distill wisdom from the Library’s rich resources and to interact with policymakers in Washington. Past senior scholars include President Fernando Henrique Cardosa of Brazil, President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, the great Russian linguist Viacheslav Ivanov, and the Belgian historian of worldwide capitalism Herman Van der Wee. These senior Kluge scholars, like Kluge Prize winners, interact informally with members of Congress, as well as with Library staff within the Library’s Jefferson Building. For further information on the Kluge Center, visit www.loc.gov/kluge/.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. It seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its Web site at www.loc.gov and via interactive exhibitions on a new, personalized Web site at myLOC.gov.

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PR 08-225
12/03/08
ISSN 0731-3527

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