Book Prize

MSA Book Prize (for a book published in 2021)

The Modernist Studies Association has announced its short list for the MSA Book Prize (for a book published in 2021). We offer our congratulations to all of the finalists.

WINNER: Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study (Chicago)

Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s The Teaching Archive radically reconfigures our understanding of the discipline and study of English by tracing its historical trajectory through the collaborative work of the literature classroom. Grounded in extensive archival research, the authors vividly reconstruct the teaching practices of instructors both well-known (T.S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson) and obscure (J. Saunders Redding, Josephine Miles) in order to demonstrate the ways that students and professors far outside the confines of elite academia helped to elaborate key disciplinary frameworks and methods. Collectively, their empirical accounts of classroom praxis and close analyses of course materials challenge longstanding oppositions—between formalism and historicism, or teaching and research—too often perceived as entrenched. In the process, the authors also uncover pedagogical “innovations” like student-centered learning, culturally responsive pedagogy, and distant reading within these early and mid-20th-century classrooms, revealing that radical experimentation has both been a persistent feature of literature education and one that has flourished within the broadest possible range of institutions. A beautifully written and forcefully argued book, The Teaching Archive will be essential reading for literature scholars and teachers. By recovering this lost disciplinary past, Buurma and Heffernan equip readers with a necessary tool to rebuke prevailing accounts of literary studies that, the authors show, are as inaccurate as they are expedient.

Brooks Hefner, Black Pulp: Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow (University of Minnesota Press)

Brooks Hefner’s Black Pulp is both a remarkable work of recovery and an important argument about African American literature in the modernist period. By locating Black pulp fiction in race newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American, Hefner offers an account of Black genre fiction that differs significantly from the highbrow African American magazines and the uplift and protest fiction with which scholars are most familiar. Across a myriad of genres—romance, speculative fiction, adventure stories—Hefner identifies the dual pleasures Black pulp stories offered their audiences: both the pleasures of genre fiction (including happy endings) and the pleasures of imagining racial justice and retribution during Jim Crow. In addition to opening an archive of understudied and unknown authors and texts (one notable exception being George Schuyler), Black Pulp also offers the important contribution of identifying Black fiction that was solely marketed and consumed by Black audiences. This is a generous and important work that will prove vital to those working in African American literature or those seeking a prehistory to the contemporary renaissance of Black genre texts such as Black Panther and Get Out.

Ana María León, Modernity for the Masses: Antonio Bonet’s Dreams for Buenos Aires (University of Texas Press)

If weak theory in recent years has shown itself to de-center familiar geographies and figures and unsettle dominant narratives, Modernity for the Masses is weak modernism at its absolute best. Taking the avowedly minor architect Antonio Bonet as an aperture on Argentinian modernism, Ana María León brilliantly illuminates the connections among the Buenos Aires avant-garde, the city’s exploding population, European modernism, and state power. León’s fine-grained attention to Bonet’s evolving plans for housing the population of Buenos Aires amidst dramatic political upheavals gives us an entirely new history of “the masses,” one that narrates the complex negotiations between architects and politicians to control, manage, and harness the power of this emergent group in rapidly shifting political times. In so doing, this book reads across architectural, photographic, and literary archives to furnish readers with a vital blueprint for constructing the history of transnational modernism.

Rochona Majumdar, Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Post-Colony (Columbia University Press)

In Rochona Majumdar’s powerful and persuasive new study, Indian art cinema emerges as nothing less than a prism refracting the nation’s conflicting apprehensions of its past and aspirations for its future. With a bivalent focus on “the history of art cinema and the art cinema as history,” Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures focuses on the work of three major directors—Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and Satyajit Ray—in order to illuminate the ways in which the cinema of these diverse filmmakers was made to bear the “ideological burdens” of a tumultuous post-colonial present. Majumdar produces a richly nuanced account of the aesthetic, intellectual, and historiographic ambitions of the three directors, offering tour-de-force analyses of their films, including both the more familiar (Ghatak’s Cloud-Capped Star, Ray’s Apu trilogy) and the less studied (Sen’s Calcutta trilogy, Ray’s city films). In the process, she usefully complicates assumptions not only about “new” Indian cinema, but about the category of art cinema broadly. Thus, even as Majumdar provides a meticulously researched account of art cinema’s function within a specific historical moment and national context, her central, well-substantiated claim—that “art films themselves [are] a mode of historical apprehension”—is one with far-reaching implications for scholars in the fields of film studies, post-colonial studies, and modernist studies.

Daniel Morgan, The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of the Moving Camera (University of California Press)

A significant work of film theory, Daniel Morgan’s The Lure of the Image will change the way readers watch and teach film, and modernists will be interested in the sustained discussions of Max Ophüls and Fritz Lang. Morgan’s book challenges (and helpfully rehearses) film theory’s long history of grounding conceptions of film meaning in montage, and trains us instead on camera motion. In doing so, he overturns a fundamental assumption about the camera as the locus of audience identification that has grounded much film theory. Instead, by first considering moments of perceptual games (such as the play with identification with the killer in horror films) and then articulating more complex challenges such as Ophüls’ circling camera or Terrence Malick’s “antiperspectival” cinematography, Morgan opens up the spectator’s relationship to the moving camera as a significant aspect of film style. Specifically, he argues that the relationship is one characterized by epistemic fantasy, as viewers imagine taking on but do not lose themselves to the perspectives offered by camera movement. The Lure of the Image is a bracing work of film theory that tethers film ethics and aesthetics beyond the limit of character and camera identification.

Julia Walker, Performance and Modernity: Enacting Change on the Global Stage (Cambridge University Press)

Julia Walker’s Performance and Modernity has all the electricity of a lightning bolt. Brilliantly reimagining performance in light of the technological, representational, and ontological crises of modernity, this book provides a breathtaking history of performance that is both truly global and shockingly new. Meticulously reconstructing accounts of changes in styles of performance as an embodiment (in every sense) of the forces of modernity itself, Walker sees different styles of performance—from the “point” technique to psychological realism—not merely encoding desires for and fears of modernity, but enacting and fomenting them. Reading across many national traditions and genres of performance, this book recasts our sense of the modern in a way few other books have.

MSA 2021 Book Prize Committee (2022)
Benjamin Kahan (Louisiana State University), Chair
Elizabeth Alsop (CUNY School of Professional Studies)
Katherine Fusco (University of Nevada, Reno)


Each year, the Modernist Studies Association seeks nominations for its Book Prize, awarded to a book published in the previous year. A panel of judges determines the book that made the most significant contribution to modernist studies. A book first published in another year will not be eligible for the prize. This exclusion applies even if a new edition (paperback or revised, for example) was published in the award year.

Please visit our Nominations page to recommend a book for this year's prize.
Visit our archive to see previous winners.