2014 ASN Book Prize

THE AMERICAN STUDIES NETWORK BOOK PRIZE 2014 was awarded ex aequo to Celeste-Marie Bernier (University of Nottingham) for Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination and to Paulina Ambroży (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań) for (Un)concealing The Hedgehog: Modernist and Postmodernist American.
The runner-up was Fabian Hilfrich (University of Edinburgh) for Debating American Exceptionalism: Empire and Democracy in the Wake of the Spanish-American War.

From the Jury's report:
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's (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: " 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).

The criteria are as follows: The monograph (not an edited volume) should have been published in 2012 or 2013; the author must be a European scholar who through membership of her/his national American Studies organization is a member of EAAS; three review copies of the book should be submitted before 1 December 2013 to:

Dr. Tomasz Basiuk
American Studies Center
University of Warsaw
Al. Niepodleglosci 22
PL 02653 Warszawa

Read about the 2012 ASN Book Prize here .