Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia doctoral graduate Tom Okie was awarded the 53rd annual Allan Nevins Dissertation Prize at the annual meeting of the Society of American Historians at the Century Club in New York City on May 20. The prize—$2,000 and publication of the winning dissertation—is awarded for the best-written doctoral dissertation on an American subject. The award honors the society’s founder and first president.
Okie’s dissertation, “‘Everything is Peaches Down in Georgia’: Culture and Agriculture in the American South,” was completed and defended at the conclusion of his study at UGA in the summer of 2012. The work explores the ascendance of the peach as a symbol of the post-Civil War South, as well as an ecological alternative to cotton in establishing a more permanent culture in the region.
“Cotton had a bad reputation by the end of the war,” said Okie, who taught history as a visiting assistant professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 2012-13 and will be an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University starting this fall.
“Farmers were planting more and more cotton, but it was increasingly associated with black poverty, environmental degradation and a sort of economic dependency.”
Peaches, which are native to China, arrived in North America with Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. As western lands increasingly opened for agriculture in the 19th century, so to did the perception of peaches as potentially more stable—and profitable—crop, especially in Georgia.
“The peach came along, and it was everything cotton wasn’t,” Okie said, explaining how the fruit’s color, sophistication and permanence—several years are required before an orchard begins to produce—aided its adoption by 19th century horticulturists.
A native of Warner Robins, Okie’s natural familiarity with the Peach Belt made the fruit a familiar topic for his interest in agriculture and the environment, he said. At UGA, Okie was awarded the Presidential Graduate Fellows Award, the Deans Award for Arts and Humanities and the Gregory Research Fellowship in the department of history for 2010-11.
“The Nevins Prize is the most prestigious dissertation prize in American history, and the roster of past winners includes some of the best historians working today,” said Paul Sutter, Okie’s dissertation adviser at UGA and now an associate professor of U.S. history and environmental history at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“Tom’s dissertation asks a simple question: Why is it that Georgians cling to the peach as a symbol of their identity when the peach has not really been that important to the state’s agricultural economy? What is it about the peach? The answers, it turns out, are many and complex, and most of them are rooted in the peach’s cultural meanings, and particularly how it diverts attention from the state’s long history of cotton addiction, with all of its disastrous social and environmental results.”
The winning Nevins Prize book is issued by one of the publishing houses that support the prize: Basic Books, Bloomsbury Press, Cambridge University Press, the University of Chicago Press, Columbia University Press, Harvard University Press, Henry Holt, Hill and Wang, Alfred A. Knopf, W. W. Norton and Company, University of North Carolina Press, Oxford University Press, Random House, Simon and Schuster and Yale University Press.