Roger Ekirch, of Roanoke, Va. a professor of early American history at Virginia Tech, was selected as this year’s winner of the Charles Smith Award for his highly acclaimed book entitled At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, which examines the history of nocturnal activity before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and electrical lighting. The Smith Award is presented in even-numbered years by the European History Section of the Southern Historical Association for the best book on European history published during the past two years.
Ekirch was also recently honored by the Library of Virginia for the best work of nonfiction in 2006. In the 9th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards, the finalists were chosen by an independent panel of judges from 116 books nominated for the awards. Dan Roberts, executive producer of A Moment in Time, presented the 2006 Literary Award for the best work of nonfiction to Ekirch at an awards celebration that was hosted by award-winning actress Daphne Maxwell Reid. Ekirch, the author of three books and numerous scholarly articles, received a $2,500 cash prize and an engraved crystal book.
Based on twenty years of detailed archival research, "At Day's Close: Night in Times Past" (W.W. Norton, 2005) is an enthralling, compelling study of the darker side of human history. The book, which spans literature, psychology, and social and intellectual history, earned rave reviews. The New Yorker dedicated five pages to Ekirch’s tome. Bernard Bailyn, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University, called it "a revelation."
Night is the forgotten half of the human experience, the secret and unknown half of history. Drawing on diverse sources including personal papers, letters, and journals, legal documents, religious tracts, and eighteenth-century newspapers, At Day’s Close examines and challenges longstanding assumptions about nocturnal activity in times past. Ekirch writes in his preface: “Darkness, for the greater part of humankind, afforded a sanctuary from everyday life, the chance, as shadows lengthened, for men and women to express inner impulses and realize repressed desires both in their waking hours and in their dreams, however innocent or sinister in nature. A time, fundamentally of liberation and renewal, night gave free reign to the goodhearted as well as the wicked.”
At Day’s Close spans from the late Middle Ages to the early nineteenth century, and is divided into four separate parts. The first section of the book, “In the Shadow of Death,” focuses on the dangers to both body and soul that the night could bring. Part Two, “Laws of Nature,” considers both bureaucratic and popular responses to nighttime, such as curfews and watchmen to control and restrict activity. Citizens themselves relied upon magic, Christianity, and natural lore to counter the darkness and safeguard their families. “Benighted Realms,” the third section, investigates the nocturnal retreats of men and women, and analyzes the personal freedom, pleasures, and pursuits that nighttime afforded them. Lastly, Part Four, “Private Worlds,” unearths ancient bedtime rituals, sleep patterns, and midnight revelations.