Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

By Julia Torres

Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) centers on the extraordinary life of Edward Curtis, explorer, advocate, and photographer. Often called the Annie Leibovitz of his time, Curtis left his life as a celebrity portrait artist in 1900 and committed himself to what Egan called his Great Idea: to capture on film America’s original inhabitants before their ways of life disappeared.

For three decades, Curtis traveled the Western plains and Northern forests, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty North American tribes. He amassed more than 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings, and he is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In doing so, he is accredited with creating the most definitive Native American archive. His experience with the conditions of Native American life did not leave him untouched. He soon emerged as one of the leading advocates for Native American rights and cultures. Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is the compelling and adventurous story of Curtis’s quest to achieve his Great Idea.

Timothy Egan is the author of seven books including The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) and Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). In 2006, he won the National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Egan will be presented with the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis on December 5, 2013.

Egan is also a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and currently writes an online opinion column for The New York Times. He has been a part of The Times for eighteen years, originally serving as a national correspondent in the Pacific Northwest. He is best known for being part of the team that wrote the series How Race Is Lived in America for The New York Times.

In addressing recent Phi Beta Kappa graduates at the Texas Christian University, Egan said “Nations, like families, need shared stories.” His books and articles reveal a dedication to deepening the relevancy and significance of history in the struggles of the present. 

Selected Book Reviews 

Driven to Document a ‘Vanishing Race:’ ‘Short Nights of the Shadow Cather,’ by Timothy Egan” Reviewed by Josh Garrett-Davis for The New York Times

Captured on Film: ‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,’ by Timothy Egan” Reviewed by Deborah Solomon for The New York Times

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” by Timothy Egan” Reviewed by Gary Krist for The Washington Post

“‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher’: the vision of photographer Edward Curtis” Reviewed by Charles R. Cross for The Seattle Times

“‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher’ by Timothy Egan” Reviewed by Kathryn Lang for The Boston Globe

For more information about this year’s book award winners, visit the Phi Beta Kappa website.

Julia Torres is a senior at Saint Joseph’s University majoring in English. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2013. Saint Joseph’s is home to the Phi of Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.