The National Endowment for the Humanities announced yesterday that Civil War historian and University professor James McPherson has been named the 2000 Jefferson Lecturer for the Humanities. This is the highest bestowed by the federal government for achievement in humanities.
"I was a bit surprised," McPherson said of receiving the prize. "Every year the NEH chooses someone who has achieved some prominence in their field. I guess they thought it was time for a Civil War historian."
McPherson's colleagues also said they were pleased with the decision. "I think he's wonderful and he's a great choice," history professor Robert Darnton said. "He has many fine qualities. I could go on and on."
"It's a singular honor, singularly deserved," history professor Sean Wilentz said. "Jim McPherson is the great Civil War historian of our time, and a great teacher to boot. I should know, I teach with him as often as I can."
As this year's Jefferson lecturer, McPherson will present a lecture, "For a Vast Future Also: Lincoln and the Millennium" on March 27, in Washington.
The lecture will be open to the public and will be held in the concert hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, according to NEH spokesman Jim Turner. "The Jefferson lecturer each year is feted here at the NEH," he said. "The event is huge."
McPherson said he first took an interest in history as a freshman at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, where he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He decided to study the Civil War as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University.
"I was struck by the parallels of the times in which I lived . . . and what had happened exactly 100 years earlier," he said.
McPherson has taught at Princeton since 1962. During his career, McPherson has received a variety of academic honors, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his bestseller "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era" and the Lincoln Prize in 1998 for his "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War."
According to McPherson, winning the Pulitzer Prize was a very important highlight of his career and brought about greatly increased demands on his time. "It made me much more visible in the historical field," he said.
He added, laughing, "Sometimes I think it actually decreased the quality of life."
McPherson said he appreciates the recognition that arises in the academic community from a prestigious honor such as being named the Jefferson lecturer. "People I respect think that I have something of interest to say," he said.