National Book Award winners from left; poet Mark Doty, Annette Gordon-Reed, winner for best non-fiction book, Judy Blundell, winner for children's literature, and Peter Matthiessen, winner for fiction. ((Robin Platzer/Associated Press) )

Peter Matthiessen, New York author and founder of the Paris Review, won a National Book Award Wednesday night for Shadow Country, a revision of his trilogy of novels written in the 1990s.

IThe 81-year-old writer last won a National Book Award 30 years ago, for The Snow Leopard.

Matthiessen, who has had parallel careers as an environmentalist and a naturalist, gives a dark history of the Florida Everglades in Shadow Country.

The novel is a story of familial, racial and environmental degradation stretching from the Civil War to the Great Depression, centred on an ambitious sugar planter.

In an interview, Matthiessen said he struggled to condense the trilogy into a single book.

"Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this revision was orchestrating its many elements throughout six years of drastic cutting and editing, all the while adding and subtracting voices and eventually rewriting almost every sentence — deepening and distilling as I think of it," he said.

It won out in a field that included:

  • Marilynne Robinson's Home.
  • Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project.
  • Salvatore Scibona's The End.
  • Rachel Kushner's Telex from Cuba.

The non-fiction winner — The Hemingses of Monticello— was also a family saga, in this case the story of the family of Sally Hemings, house slave to the U.S. founding father Thomas Jefferson.

Author Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at New York Law School and professor of history at Rutgers University, previously explored the controversy over the relationship between Jefferson and the woman thought to have fathered his children in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.

The Hemingses of Monticello is a continuing examination of slavery and its impact on American lives.

Watson's young adult novel wins children's award

Judy Blundell, who writes genre fiction under the name Jude Watson, won the children's literature award for What I Saw and How I Lied, a young adult novel about a young woman who uncovers a web of deceit after her father brings a mysterious soldier back from the Second World War.

The poetry winner was Mark Doty for Fire to Fire, which collects the best of his previous seven books of poetry. Doty is a professor at the University of Houston and lives in New York.

Each winner of the awards founded in 1950 and sponsored by the non-profit National Book Foundation gets $10,000.

The spectre of the economy and the looming change in U.S. leadership hung over the ceremony Wednesday evening in New York.

Honorary award winner Maxine Hong Kingston praised president-elect Barack Obama for his way of "putting things right by talking them through."

California-based Hong Kingston is author of 1980 National Book Award winner China Men and Tripmaster Monkey.

Fellow honorary winner Barney Rosset, an 86-year-old publisher, also reflected the relief in U.S. cultural communities over Obama's win.

"For the first time in recenemory I am not thinking of renouncing my American passport," he said.