ASN Book Prize


The ASN Book Prize 2024 has been awarded to Justin Parks, Poetry and the Limits of Modernity in Depression America (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

Although the title suggests that the book’s main subject is poetry, the book is broadly a cultural examination of the Depression era US culture. Its analytical focus is on the notion of crisis (both economic and cultural), which is discussed through a range of different lenses: literature, photography, music, and folk tradition. The literary angle is brought into the discussion by examining the relationship between poetry and crisis, with poetry becoming “a means of lending form to crisis, rendering it socially and aesthetically legible.” On a broader scale, the book deals with an “epistemological crisis in which cultural producers increasingly cast doubt on language in its ability to represent society.”

The book’s theoretical discussion is highly sophisticated, on the one hand establishing a connection between economy and culture and, on the other hand, industrial production, consumption, and consumerism, also tied to questions of the environment and resources in the post-war era. Alongside key poets of the era, the discussion probes documentary photography, folk expression, and vernacular technologies, establishing connections between words and images as well as representation and “imagemaking,” implicitly debunking divisions of high-brow and low-brow culture. The panel considers this an excellent example of American Studies scholarship.


2024 ASN Book Prize

Justin Parks. Poetry and the Limits of Modernity in Depression America, Cambridge University Press, 2023.

Furnishing a novel take on the poetry of the 1930s within the context of the cultural history of the Depression, this book argues that the period’s economic and cultural crisis was accompanied by an epistemological crisis in which cultural producers increasingly cast doubt on language in its ability to represent society. Poetry and the Limits of Modernity in Depression America pursues this guiding premise through six chapters, each framing the problem of the ongoing vitality of language as a social medium with respect to a particular poet: Louis Zukofsky and the commodification of language; Muriel Rukeyser and documentary photography; Charles Reznikoff and Depression-era historiography; Sterling A. Brown and the blues as both an ethnographic phenomenon and a marketable cultural product; Norman Macleod and Southwest regionalism; and Lorine Niedecker and ethnographic surrealism. The book closes by examining the shifting status of the poet as society transitioned from a focus on production to an emphasis on consumption in the Post-war period.

2022 ASN Book Prize

Sharon Monteith. SNCC’s Stories: The African American Freedom Movement in the Civil Rights South, University of Georgia Press, 2020.

SNCC’s Stories is an example of an American Studies approach par excellence, looking at intersections of politics and culture through social movements and activism, elucidating the everyday and the literary, the scholarly and the vernacular. It convinces the reader that this is a neglected aspect of SNCC’s history and one which provides entirely new insiders’ viewpoints to the topic. Not only does it offer a range of neglected writings produced by the movement, it shows that “literary activism” was a consciously designed strategy by SNCC, one which has previously been understudied. The novelty of the book’s approach is that it does not valorize so-called “objective” historical accounts but sees value in exploring SNCC’s history ‘subjectively in ways they could not be explored in other kinds of writing.’

2020 ASN Book Prize

Mark Newman. Desegregating Dixie: The Catholic Church in the South and Desegregation, 1945-1992. University Press of Mississippi, 2018.

Newman offers a comprehensive anatomy of the Roman Catholic Church’s mixed response to the process of racial inclusion in the American South. He demonstrates that that response ranged from outright resistance through apathy to adjustment. Desegregating Dixie has filled an important gap in the study of race and religion, questioning the belief that the Catholic Church provided great assistance in desegregation. It’s a clear-eyed, thorough, and spectacularly researched assessment of the Church’s role in the recent racial history of the South.

2018 ASN Book Prize

Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis. Live and Let Di(n)e: Food and Race in the Texts of the American South. KUL Publishing House, 2017.

Food metonymically informs all aspects of human existence, it generates multiple cultural and social meanings. It has been acknowledged in American studies as a lens through which we can productively analyze how identities are performed and negotiated. Live and Let Di(n)e responds to this growing awareness through informative and disparate reflections on the interconnectedness of food, race, and class in the American South. The book expertly teases out the critical significance of food, both foodways and foodscape, in various texts of culture, demonstrating how it has served to enhance the meaning of the South.

The study offers a carefully argued analysis of the cultural representations of race relations and black identity in the post-emancipation Dixie. It explores racial interactions in a wide range of cultural artefacts to see how food production and consumption can signify the racial history of the South. The book offers eloquent readings of food-related motifs and settings in a wide array of Southern literature ranging from Walker Percy, Ellen Douglas, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Gaines, to Anthony Grooms, and cinematography such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Soul Food. Considered separately, each chapter provides a lens into a historically and socially-situated identity negotiation between white and black Southerners. Read together, they function as a comprehensive and versatile guide to Southern food studies.

Live and Let Di(n)e leaves the readers with a sense of impressive sweep and control of the researched material. It is an evidence of the author’s deep theoretical knowledge, an excellent orientation in the problem of critical race studies through the prism of food studies, and her ability to exercise critical and analytical judgement of wide-ranging scholarship. On top of everything it is a highly readable book, written in a style that is accessible to academia and beyond.

2016 ASN Book Prize

Elèna Mortara. Writing for Justice: Victor Séjour, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and the Age of Transatlantic Emancipations. Dartmouth College Press, 2015.

The book provides a fascinating account of the links between the New Orleans-born French-speaking writer Victor Séjour, the affair of the kidnapping of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara, and the author herself. Séjour, a Catholic “free man of color,” made his literary reputation in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century as a playwright and his dramatic works included a successful dramatization of the cause célèbre in which the child Mortara was seized by the Inquisition in 1858 on the orders of Pope Pius IX. Elèna Mortara identifies the family links with the child as her great-grandmother was Edgardo’s sister and present when he was seized.

The originality of the study is marked by the author’s use of a range of methodologies and the linking of a number of academic disciplines. There is a detailed historical analysis of the period she calls ‘the Era of Emancipations’ which includes a strong transatlantic link. She also provides a biographical account of Séjour’s life along with a thorough literary analysis of his writings. The personal aspect of the work adds an additional lens which illustrates how the past can be illuminated by a contemporary perspective.

The volume pays close attention to the dialogues and cross-Atlantic influences that link intellectuals and public figures on both sides of the Atlantic, especially those Europeans engaged in their own countries in national emancipatory debates (the French Affranchissement and the Italian Risorgimento) and their American abolitionist counterparts.

The systematic comparison of a number of French, Italian, and American primary sources, including newspapers, private correspondence and family archives, allows the author to shed new light on the complexity of the early transatlantic relations and pave the way for further scholarship taking into account the role that key individuals played in the definition of such an enduring exchange.Written in a style that is accessible to the non-subject specialist, it is thus a work that advances American Studies in a number of directions. The ASN extends its warmest congratulations to Elèna Mortara.

2014 ASN Book Prize

Celeste-Marie Bernier. Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination. University of Virginia Press, 2012. and Paulina Ambroży. (Un)concealing The Hedgehog: Modernist and Postmodernist American. AMU Scientific Publishing House, 2012. Runner-up: Fabian Hilfrich. Debating American Exceptionalism: Empire and Democracy in the Wake of the Spanish-American War. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.


Celeste-Marie Bernier’s Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination (ex aequo) is an ambitious, politically engaged, well-researched and innovative attempt at reconstructing a tradition of black male and female heroism against a dominant white discourse that has largely denied the possibility of black heroes. In this attempt Bernier focuses on six figures, central in African American folklore and yet largely ignored or diminished in white national narrative/cultural memory: Toussaint Louverture, Nat Turner, Sengbe Pieh, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. In doing so, she analyzes a broad spectrum of visual and textual material (paintings, illustrations, sculptures, narratives). Her focus is at once national and transnational in so far as she places the legends of black heroism within a wider network of contemporary African, Caribbean, and/or European contexts, impacts, adaptations as much as she sees them as part of an emerging political and aesthetic tradition of heroic resistance against white suppression (what she calls “the parameters of a black diasporic heroic continuum”, 360). The author clearly sees her research as a scholarly as well as a political intervention: taking part in the construction of such an iconography of black heroism, at the same time that she deconstructs white racist prejudices and stereotypical obfuscations (be they pro-slavery, abolitionist, or post-slavery liberal). In that sense, she has clearly written a “black” book that often shares in the rhetorical pathos of an ongoing struggle of emancipation – of black and feminist freedom-fighting against the ideological and institutional structures/pressures of a dominant white (Western, colonial, patriarchal) culture. Very much in analogy to one of her visual documents (Debra Priestly’s “Strange Fruit”) that she analyzes in her summary, her book is meant “to bear witness to the fact that black diasporic acts and arts of heroism exist in an ideologically, morally, and existentially charged no-man’s-land vis-à-vis mainstream memoralizations” (353). In her book, then, the only reluctantly recognized, ignored or disfigured black male and female heroes of epochs of slavery and post-slavery repression become the heroic icons of a continuing postcolonial (and transnational) struggle: “For such an array of Black heroic figures, diverse acts and arts of radical self-representation remain no less precious currency in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries” (360).

Paulina Ambroży, (Un)concealing The Hedgehog: Modernist and Postmodernist American Poetry and Contemporary Critical Theories (ex aequo) is an intelligent and highly readable study of modern (and postmodern) poetry which investigates “the intersections and alliances between poetic and theoretical discourses,” following Marjorie Perloff’s notion that, today, “there is no hard and fast division between them.” The book draws on Derrida’s metaphoric ‘definition’ of poetry as a hedgehog crossing a highway – fragile, vulnerable, rolling itself up and thus making itself impenetrable in self-defense, yet always in danger of being run over by the interpretative machinery of fast-reading critics intent on smoothing (leveling) its prickly surface, thus killing its “heart”, its hidden essence. At once defensive and bent on communication, the poem/hedgehog can yet communicate only by keeping its secretness intact. Ambroży confesses at the beginning that she is drawn to Derrida “because there is a sustained passion for literature in his entire oeuvre” (27). That passion is also driving this spirited book which is highly competent in its handling of a broad range of theory (and secondary material) and, at the same time, convincing in its care-full and resourceful textual analyses that explore the hedgehog’s impenetrable and untranslatable surface, yet manage to keep it alive. Ambroży uses Derridean theory as a kind of critical spectacles that make her see aspects and nuances, gaps and reversals (the prickly surface of the hedgehog) that are easily (and have been frequently) overlooked. It is truly remarkable that she is able to work through a wide spectrum of greatly different and greatly difficult texts (from William Carlos Williams/ Wallace Stevens/ Marianne Moore/ Gertrude Stein/ Mina Loy to Rosmarie Waldrop/ Susan Howe/ Charles Bernstein) with equal analytical intensity and differentiating subtlety…. It is not only an exciting intellectual challenge but a joy/pleasure to read – even if one is not a Derridean and might have reservations to (t)his approach since it reads modern poetry through the eyes of postmodern/poststructuralist theory and practice (and yet makes us see).

Fabian Hilfrich’s Debating American Exceptionalism: Empire and Democracy in the Wake of the Spanish-American War (the runner-up) focuses on the internal debates and ideological tensions within the shared ideology of American exceptionalism: Imperialists and Anti-imperialists alike used it in their debate about the nature and destiny of American democracy during the 1890s and after: “…how the elasticity of exceptionalism as a shared discourse could be exploited…. [T]his one shared discourse … made it superfluous for most debaters to place themselves outside the consensus, and appeal to more radical, more ‘deconstructionist,’ even more ‘un-American’ ideas to oppose the dominant policies of the day. This, in turn, confirmed the strength and longevity of exceptionalism” (11-12). Hilfrich very plausibly differentiates between the different positions (and strategies) of Imperialists and Anti-Imperialists (the latter maneuvering among racist prejudices to maintain an ideal image of American democracy that should not be defiled by Imperialist/colonial ventures.) His analysis also demonstrates the persistence of (seemingly) antagonistic political and rhetorical positions (imperialism vs. anti-imperialism/isolationism, democracy abroad vs. democracy at home) that yet converge in an ideology of American exceptionalism (very much in the way of Bercovitch’s analysis of the Jeremiad and the all-encompassing rhetoric of a redemptive “America”) and can be traced to the present. Hilfrich’s analysis is illuminating in that it points to consistent patterns of thinking (the domino theory, American Empire and the Iraq War) and (self)legitimation (the pressures of “destiny”) not only in American politics but in American culture and its self-interpretation. (As he writes on p. 204: “Being American is both the problem and the solution.”) His “Conclusion” is a thought-provoking and insightful assessment of contemporary American and global politics: “On the one hand, the self-reflexiveness and inclusiveness of American exceptionalism ensure a large degree of stability for a particular American discourse on foreign policy and possibly for American society as well. On the other hand, the tendency to view the other through the self not only limits the range and focus of one’s perception, but can also compel the other to retaliate in kind—with violence and limited vision” (206).

2012 ASN Book Prize

Birgit Däwes. Ground Zero Fiction: History, Memory, and Representation in the 9/11 Novel. Universitätsverlag Winter Heidelberg, 2011.

The book investigates how novelists over the past decade have tried to come to terms with an event that has impacted the public consciousness of the West in an unprecedented way. She welcomes the fact that her material has become superabundant and very diverse, and that our attention may have become dulled by overexposure, because they have induced novelists to become more reflective, nuanced, and creative in their treatments. In her book, Birgit Däwes analyses dozens of novels employing a variety of critical approaches and develops a comprehensive typology of this new subgenre of fiction – a typology which is oriented at the different intellectual, epistemological, and aesthetic functions performed by these works. We are bound to admire the fresh, lively, inquiring spirit with which she conducts her investigation. Not driven by a particular agenda, she rather desires to give the different fictional and critical approaches their full sway, probably in the understanding that the culture at large – in its effort to grapple with 9/11 – will profit from such plenitude and diversity. The book gives the reader a sense of participating in a comprehensive intellectual and cultural debate. In mapping the field of Ground Zero Fiction, Birgit Däwes has conducted pioneer scholarly work that will help to guide scholars and readers for years to come. But she has also written an engaging and intellectually generous book that draws our attention to the powerful resources provided by literature and criticism encouraging us to gain a more balanced view of how our culture comes to terms with such a momentous event as 9/11.

2010 ASN Book Prize

Peter Messent, Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells & Rogers Friendships. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. And, Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller: 1915-1962. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009.

Remarks by Prize Committee Chairman Axel Schäfer on the 2010 ASN Book Prize

Fifteen books were submitted to the prize committee (Axel Schäfer, Keele, Gert Buelens, Ghent, and Clara Juncker, Odense). It was a difficult decision, because the overall quality of submissions was very high. The prize committee’s shortlist still had eight books on it! We finally split the prize between two winners. However, we also felt that two runners-up should receive an honorable mention.

Written with tremendous insight and knowledge not only about Mark Twain but also the historical and sociocultural contexts, Pete Messent’s book is a solid, carefully argued book that exemplifies American Studies scholarship at its best. Messent effectively embeds his analysis of Twain within a discourse on masculinity and friendship, and a discourse on religious, literary and business elites in the late nineteenth century. Twain’s long and lasting friendships with three men serve as a prism through which light is refracted onto the whole emotional spectrum of American society of the Gilded Age. Well-researched and inspiring, this is very much a book in the multidisciplinary American Studies tradition.

Christopher Bigsby’s massive, detailed, eminently (even compulsively) readable biography is a magisterial work on a major American literary figure. Based in part on interviews with Miller, the book truly stands out by breaking new ground about a canonical author. Bigsby excels both owing to his sensitive treatment of every aspect of Arthur Miller’s life and his intimate knowledge of the social, economic, political context. Not just a very well-written book, but also one that wears its impressive scholarship lightly, it firmly establishes both Miller’s legacy and his place in the pantheon of American dramatists.

Honorable mentions went to: Patrick Hagopian, The Vietnam War in American Memory: Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing. Amherst: U of Mass. Press, 2009.

Combining history, cultural analysis and heritage studies, this erudite analysis is steeped in thorough primary source research. In particular, we were impressed with the way the author dissects representations of the past as part and parcel of efforts to perpetuate historical amnesia.

Kristiaan Versluys, Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 2009. This sophisticated study of 9/11 as the mother of all traumas provides a convincing analysis of literary reactions that will shape the study of the field in years to come.