Book Prize

MSA First Book Prize (for a book published in 2019)

The Modernist Studies Association has announced its short list for the MSA First Book Prize (for a book published in 2019). We offer our congratulations to all of the finalists.

Cahill, James Leo. Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Do not mistake Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé for a niche author-study or for a peculiar footnote to a familiar art movement. This elegantly written, wide-ranging yet meticulous, constantly surprising work by James Leo Cahill shows how an extraordinary collaborative oeuvre of weird documentary emerges within French cinema to flood with sudden light a teeming, unexpected life at intersecting discourses and institutions of modern science, technology, art, pleasure, and violence. In Painlevé’s photographic entanglements with laboratory dogs, fashionable crabs, and enamoured seahorses, familiar ideas of what constitutes modernist cinema, modernist nature, and modernist social vision all suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange.

Cloutier, Jean-Christophe. Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature. Columbia University Press, 2019.

Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature by Jean-Christophe Cloutier is an original exploration of the creation, silent waiting, and spectral existence of African American writers’ archival legacies. The author delivers on a great number of levels, recounting a suspenseful scholarly story of his excavations within archival collections. These led to the discovery in 2009 of Claude McKay’s once-lost satirical novel Amiable with Big Teeth (written in 1941), which Cloutier then co-edited and published in 2017 and, later, of the uncatalogued manuscript for Ann Petry’s The Street (published in 1946). Cloutier’s description of the precarious trajectories of letters, notes, and manuscripts through time, in turn, leads to a powerful argument about African American authors’ archival sensibilities and their own inherent understanding of their fragile legacies. A significant contribution not only to modernist studies but a number of constituencies in the humanities, Shadow Archives enacts and argues for immersive engagements with archival labyrinths as a way to forge new disciplinary futures.

Davis II, Charles L. Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019.

Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style is a compelling, erudite, and timely book by architectural historian Charles L. Davis II. Using the concept of character as an interpretive lens, Davis presents fascinating images and analyses of racial contents that have, until now, been missing from modernist and architectural debates. Moving from the Aryan character of Viollet-le-Duc’s Swiss huts and the ethnographic rationalizations of Dresden-based architect Gottfried Semper’s scientific rubrics, to an analysis of the whiteness of Louis Sullivan’s architectural designs for Chicago’s German Jews and William Lescaze’s New York City public housing towers, Davis launches a vital critical conversation about the historical integrations of race and style theory. In so doing he challenges us to discover more principled interpretations of the racial assumptions of organic architectural and modernist traditions.

Ehlers, Sarah. Left of Poetry: Depression America and the Formation of Modernist Poetics. University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

In Left of Poetry: Depression America and the Formation of Modern Poetics, Sarah Ehlers asks what makes a political poem: is it an inherent quality or is it reader-ordained? Ehlers’s superb study responds to this question, leading readers to a set of writers for whom poetic and political revolutions were not mutually exclusive: pro-Communist Left authors in the Americas working during in the 1930s, including Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Genevieve Taggard, and Jacques Roumain. Moving through these figures’ employment of documentary and lyric modes, Left of Poetry crystallizes how politically engaged poetry surges from the immediacy of racial and economic struggle, and a particular understanding of the historical. In the exploration of these dynamics, Ehlers proposes new directions for historical poetics, while shedding light on a body of work consistently ignored by longstanding literary-critical canons. In multiple and often surprising ways, Left of Poetry cleverly examines the annals of the past to address our own tempestuous political present.

Hankins, Gabriel. Interwar Modernism and the Liberal World Order: Offices, Institutions, and Aesthetics after 1919. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

In his Interwar Modernism and the Liberal World Order, Gabriel Hankins brings a revelatory perspective to the interwar kaleidoscope of modernist politics by turning the axis of reference from familiar contests between left and right social formations, to the shifting, conflicted juggernaut of modern liberalism. Here, liberalism sheds its often evasive, monolithic skin and opens up to rigorous study, via its transnational institutions, of an innovative and unsettled world order having profound interactions with literary culture. Hankins’ judicious historicist and materialist accounts of writings by such canonical figures as Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and W. E. B. Du Bois, and provocative readings of many less read and remembered others, open new windows on the commitments and struggles of modern literature. The book changes what the political looks like and means for modernist studies.

Micir, Melanie. The Passion Projects: Modernist Women, Intimate Archives, Unfinished Lives. Princeton University Press, 2019.

A heroic recovery of queer feminist literary history and criticism, Melanie Micir’s The Passion Projects: Modernist Women, Intimate Archives, Unfinished Lives celebrates women’s defiant literary and personal commitments in the face of ongoing erasure from the annals of modernism. Beautifully written, ferociously researched, energetically argued, this study documents, interprets, and theorizes a modernist genre out of the intimate, private biographical acts of lesbian and queer writers Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Hope Mirrlees, Alice B. Toklas, among others. Reading biography as an activist genre undertaken in late career by queer feminist writers, The Passion Projects discovers in unpublished, unfinished, curated, collated, forward-looking works by women the ghostly materials awaiting discovery in the future of this book.

MSA 2019 First Book Prize Committee (2020)
Kristin Bluemel, Chair
María del Pilar Blanco
Glenn Willmott


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