Introducing: The Bancroft Prize Title Generator!

It is late May, a glorious time of year. The grades have been filed, the graduates ushered off to their futures. And like swallows to Capistrano, scholars return to their research: book projects, long-overdue book reviews, and articles they have been meaning to write but never have.

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And thus we also return to pondering sources, arguments, and – the most diverting exercise of all – titles.

Titles are fun to think about; they are also extraordinarily important. These words are the first that a potential reader sees on the bookshelf, in a promotional email, or on a list generated by Google or library catalog searches. A misleading or boring title can actually alienate readers, costing the author citations and book sales.

In the humanities, most article and book titles look like this:

  • Zippy phrase or pithy quote that conveys the argument or subject of the piece and acts as a “hook”
  • :
  • Descriptive secondary title conveying the subject, location, and time period of the text

Some scholars play around with this configuration (or think about playing around with it). What about crafting a question for a title? Or ditching the secondary title altogether? Or getting really creative with the hook?

At one point, I suggested to my PhD adviser that I change the title of my dissertation (about the Okefenokee Swamp) from “Peculiar Ecology” to “Muck.” She objected, strongly and loudly. “Do not ever, EVER, give your work a title that rhymes with a curse word,” she said. “That’s just an invitation for a reviewer to use one.” Wise advice.

Innovative titles are risky and therefore book and article titles continue to echo one another — and to seem boring and unoriginal.

Even so, it was startling to read the titles of the two U.S. history books that won the Bancroft Prize this year:

  • Empire of Cotton: A Global History (by Sven Beckert)
  • The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (by Greg Grandin)

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The similarities of these hooks prompted some hilarious exchanges via Twitter (March 26, 2015), in which scholars Ann Little, Liz Covart, and a handful of others suggested new titles for their own books, using as many “Empires” as possible. “Empire of Empires: the Imperial History of Empire.” #BecauseEmpire

This Bancroft Prize title echo suggests that, like fields of study, book titles trend.

I began to wonder: how many Bancroft Prize-winning book titles include similar words or phrases? Are there particular words that appear again and again, that seem guaranteed to appeal to the prize committees?

I crunched the numbers on the previous twenty-five years of Bancroft titles and the answer to both questions, dear reader, is yes. Oh, yes.

And so I present to you: The Bancroft Prize Title Generator.

I must acknowledge that this is not a technologically advanced generator. I investigated what it would take to code an online generator and apparently, what it would take is an actual coder.

So here’s the deal: you give me your current book project/dissertation title (or a short description of the work) in the comments section of this blog post, and the Bancroft Prize Title Generator (a.k.a. Historista) will give you a shiny new one as a reply.

I don’t guarantee results but if you do end up winning the Bancroft with this new title, I think a small cut of your winnings (let’s say, 5%) is only fair, don’t you?

46 thoughts on “Introducing: The Bancroft Prize Title Generator!”

  1. Help please! My dissertation is about the gendered politics of World War II. I am tracing gendered citizenship, citizenship education, and U.S. history curriculums displacement of women in history and providing interventions for how to use gender as a category of analysis in history education.

    1. After a bit of a delay (my apologies), the Generator suggests:
      Empire of Men: The Erasure of Women from American History

  2. I have just today discovered this brilliant device, and must submit a request.

    I’m working on a book about a federal human trafficking case in 1980s American South. 12 were freed from slavery by the FBI after discovery of a man’s body, dead from heatstroke, on the back of a bus on a rural tobacco farm. the study involves the intersectionalities of gender, race, and class, should I avoid too pretentious-sounding of a title?

    I hope I haven’t stumped you, because I need help!

  3. OK–here we go. My thesis is about Dr.Jonathan Letterman,, the Medical Director for the Army of the Potomac from June 23, 1862 to January 1864. I am interested in three specific things: the formation of the Ambulance Corps, battlefield triage, and the impact of Letterman’s innovations on modern battlefields and emergency scenarios.

    Help!!

    1. Meg, you’re already on your way because the Bancroft has usually smiled upon books related to death and dying. The Generator suggests:
      Defeating Death: Civil War Battlefields and the Making of Modern Medicine

      1. So here is my version–I just felt like Letterman needed to be in the title: Defeating Death: Jonathan Letterman and the Making of Modern Medicine. But this doesn’t indicate anything about the Civil War . . .

        BTW–I am actually going to use this title, so it has to be great! “Defeating Death” is perfect–

  4. I’m getting ready to send out my ms to cultural beta readers, a new folktales about how star navigation and a little magic got the endemic Asio flammeus sandwichensis (Pueo) from the Marquesas to Hawai’i. Current title is Hooked by the Stars: Seeking Aloha on a Voyage to Hawai’i .

    1. The Generator had to google the term “Asio flammeus sandwichensis” but now suggests:
      “Brought by the Stars: Narratives of Migration and Identity in the Pacific World”

  5. A Spirited Victorian Woman: The Life of Emma Hardinge Britten…help!!!!!!! This is my current (not very thought out yet) title for my dissertation. It is an historical biography of Emma Hardinge Britten, English woman who lived in England and the United States as a Modern Spiritualist and social reformer. I stress the importance of the transatlantic nature of her life story.

    1. This is easy, because almost every single Bancroft-winning biography has the same title structure. So The Generator suggests:
      Emma Hardinge Britten: A Life

  6. I’m writing a piece on the normative intersections of race, class, and gender in imperial transatlantic hegemonies. Any title suggestions would be deeply appreciated.

  7. I doubt I’m going to get a Bancroft for writing about a kooky murder case set in Depression-era Natchez, so I’m going with what it was originally called–The Goat Castle Murder. Don’t you think that will catch someone’s eye?

    1. Karen, you never know! The Generator loves your hook, so suggests:
      The Goat Castle Murder: Violence and Community in the American South

      1. That subtitle sounds promising. My working subtitle is “A True Southern Gothic Tale,” which it is.

  8. I am writing a book about identity in early America. My book explores how the people of Albany, New York created first Dutch, then British, and finally an American identity. Geography, war, culture, and economic factors affected how the Albanians shaped their identity. Also, Albany stood as the literal and figurative gateway to North America. Before there was St. Louis, people passed through Albany on their way north to Canada and West to the Great Lakes or East to New York City and the Atlantic seaboard.

    1. I have a bit of an advantage because I know your title hook, and like it. The Generator tweaks it a bit and suggests:
      The First Gateway: Albany and the Making of America

  9. The relationship between weather, climate, and the Civil War. Most of my books have titles I didn’t submit, so let’s head off the marketing department early this time. That’s worth 10 percent.

    1. It’s also too bad that “Fateful Lightning” has already been taken. So The Generator suggests:
      A Storm Coming: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War

  10. Hi, Megan! Give this a go – the title and subtitle of my book (to be published in May 2016, so there is time to reconsider) is:
    “Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives: Four Women who Influenced the Civil War – For Better and for Worse”
    My subjects – the Fremonts, McClellans, Shermans and Grants.
    I’ll raise the stakes to 15% for you!

    1. Candy, this is already a great trade book title (although the double possessive is a bit of a tongue-twister). The Bancroft books tend to be a bit more traditional so The Generator suggests:
      The Generals’ Wives: Family, Community, and Power in the Union Army

  11. I’m writing a book about the ubiquity of surrender in the Civil War. My working title, as a form of homage, is Surrender Nation. I wouldn’t mind having a Bancroft, so suggestions/improvements are welcome. I’ll give you 10% of the winnings.

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