Book Prize

MSA First Book Prize (for a book published in 2020)

The Modernist Studies Association has announced its short list for the MSA First Book Prize (for a book published in 2020). We offer our congratulations to all of the finalists.

WINNER: Jill Richards, The Fury Archives: Female Citizenship, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes (Columbia University Press)

This fascinating, wide-ranging study considers the coincidence of first-wave feminism on the one hand and experimental “anti-mimetic” literary and artistic movements such as Dada and Surrealism on the other in order to ask, “How might we understand these currents alongside one another, as part of the same historical moment?” Revising fundamental understandings of the international avant-garde, the book tracks aesthetic commitments through the various scales, tactics, and practices of women’s work and queer work. Richards combines an expansive geographic and linguistic scope with meticulous attention to the formal details of the book's multi-genre archives: from pamphlets and magazines to photographs, plays, novels, autobiographies, and more. Attending to the work of Claude Cahun, Paulette Nardal, and numerous other activist artists both familiar and largely unknown, the project uncovers a rich “archive of female citizenship.” The Fury Archives offers a record of the quotidian practices of activism and waged work, reanimating the historical avant-garde as a living force.

HONORABLE MENTION: Debashree Mukherjee, Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City (Columbia University Press)

Bombay Hustle is the product of remarkable archival research, examining the city’s burgeoning film industry with a “practitioner’s eye view.” Mukherjee makes creative use of financial records, court documents, labor history, advertising, newspaper reviews, trade magazines, and other written traces to present a thrilling materialist history of colonial Bombay cinema of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Bombay Hustle rejects the view that the Hollywood model—marked by the vertical integration of the film industry—should be the standard by which all other cinematic production ought to be judged. Instead, Mukherjee suggests that filmmaking in colonial India was defined by hustle, or the stretching of resources—talent, expertise, equipment, and capital—right to the breaking point and sometimes beyond.

HONORABLE MENTION: Joshua Cohen, The “Black Art” Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents (University of California Press)

When Picasso took inspiration from African masks and sculpture to create Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), to what art objects did he have access through dealers, museums, and private collections? When artists from the African diaspora responded to Picasso’s work, how did they begin to reassess the history of African art and its usefulness for modernist aesthetics? Providing a rich account of material practices in the artworld, Cohen generates a history of twentieth-century aesthetic forms by documenting the intercontinental trade and curation of art objects. The “Black Art” Renaissance offers a revisionist account of the aesthetic traffic between African and European art, using extensive archival research to show what precise art objects circulated and how particular artists and schools made use of what they encountered.

HONORABLE MENTION: Sarah Wasserman, The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (University of Minnesota Press)

The Death of Things directs us to the vexed temporalities that structure literature of the modernist period and extend into the digital age, from discarded utopias to counterfactual histories. The study works on the paradoxical representation of ephemeral objects that do not quite disappear—things that are meant to be discarded or disposed after use yet find themselves preserved in the pages of postwar US fiction. Moving with ease between theories of the novel, object-oriented ontologies, and critical infrastructure studies, the book makes us notice the agency of “stuff” in our desires to re-animate futures that never came to pass, revivifying narrative categories of setting and object. Wasserman’s witty, direct style makes the ambiguities and anxieties that circulate around the ephemeral a pleasure to read.

Beth Blum, The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature (Columbia University Press)

As unlikely as it might sound, Beth Blum makes a convincing case for reading self-help guides and modernist writing as secret sharers. Although many sociological accounts of the literary field suggest that the artistry of a text can be measured by its distance from instrumental uses, The Self-Help Compulsion contends that these two sectors of the publishing world intersect at a number of key points. The committee was particularly impressed by the book’s scope, taking stock of writers as different as Gustave Flaubert and Samuel Smiles or Ann Landers and V.S. Naipaul.>

James Edward Ford III, Thinking Through Crisis: Depression-Era Black Literature, Theory, and Politics (Fordham University Press)

Emphasizing the revolutionary potential of the “dark proletariat” in 1930s African American literature, James Edward Ford III’s research shows how antiracist writers forged a creative path where there appeared to be no way forward. With adroit close readings of writing by W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright, Thinking through Crisis also connects Depression-era struggles with the long history of political activism. This book adds a capacious, imaginative account to the history of radical writing and thought.

Erica Fretwell, Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (Duke University Press)

Examining the once-influential but now virtually forgotten subdiscipline of psychophysics, Erica Fretwell shows how a range of late-nineteenth century writers were in dialogue with scientific efforts to codify sensory perception. In its attempts to provide an empirical account of sensory experiences, psychophysics came into direct contact with the aesthetic realm, especially literature, which had long claimed expertise in matters of taste and feeling. Although these empirical studies were blinkered by social hierarchies, writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, James Weldon Johnson, and Hellen Keller engaged with psychophysics in order to undermine and contest exclusionary practices.

Edgar Garcia, Signs of the Americas: A Poetics of Pictography, Hieroglyphs, and Khipu (University of Chicago Press)

What if pictographs, hieroglyphs, and khipu are not dead sign-systems, codes to be cracked by archaeologists and linguists, but instead living means of aesthetic signification? This is the wager of Signs of the Americas, Edgar Garcia’s generative and stimulating account of how modern poetics makes use of diverse forms of written signs. Although indigenous sign systems have suffered misuse and appropriation, they also constitute an aesthetic resource in our contemporary moment, demonstrating the resistance and resilience of the native peoples of the Americas.

Ben Glaser, Modernism’s Metronome: Meter and Twentieth-Century Poetics (Johns Hopkins University Press)

Ezra Pound’s well-known proclamation--“To break the pentameter, that was the first heave”—has become a pithy summary of how modernists used free verse to flush rigid meter out of the poetic system. Ben Glaser’s striking research, however, shows how a surprising number of poets used meter to stretch and bend the forms of prosody. Offering a compelling blend of revelatory close readings and original archival research, Modernism’s Metronome showcases what is best about modernist studies today

MSA 2020 First Book Prize Committee
Peter Kalliney (University of Kentucky), Chair
Nadia Nurhussein (Johns Hopkins University)
Nicole Rizzuto (Georgetown University)


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.