Early American Literature Book Prize for 2016

The Early American Literature Book Prize, which in even years recognizes a first monograph, has been awarded in 2016 to Professor Robert Gunn of the University of Texas at El Paso, for Ethnology and Empire: Languages, Literature, and the Making of the North American Borderlands, published by New York University Press in 2015.

Members of the prize committee describe Ethnology and Empire as “tremendously careful, historically and archivally illuminating, and intellectually provocative.” They characterize it as an “inevitable book” that will “influence thinking in anthropology, history, literary studies, and Native Studies.” They stress the way that Gunn “consistently and informatively foregrounds language of all kinds (and in particular sign language) in narrating the story of the racialization of Native American difference as a justification for imperial expansion on the part of the United States.”

The result is a panoramic, complex, sometimes contradictory picture of the making of U.S. borders by way of, rather than in willful ignorance of, indigenous languages. Along the way, some extraordinary characters are depicted, from the Long Expedition of 1819–21; to the peripatetic and ill-fated John Dunn Hunter; to John Russell Bartlett and the U.S.-Mexico boundary survey.  Gunn’s attention to a variety of interpersonal encounters and their narrative representations in the context of a powerful command of contemporary linguistic theory further distinguishes his book as prizeworthy.

The committee has also awarded an honorable mention to Professor Kathleen Donegan, of the University of California at Berkeley, for Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

 As noted by the committee, “Donegan’s work is by turns troubling, provocative, and persuasive. Her analysis of suffering in the literature of colonial settlement and the way that it produced the colonial subject/colonial literature is careful not to focus on the misery of colonial settlers at the expense of acknowledging and analyzing the atrocities they visited on others.” The committee also noted the often-gripping style of Seasons of Misery. One committee member observed that Donegan’s style is part of her process—the construction of “narrative readings” that merge exegesis with “a sustained narrative schema” creates a powerful sense of drama in sources whose inherent power is often submerged.

The two rotating members of the committee were Matt Cohen for the MLA Forum for American Literature to 1800 and Kristina Bross for the Society of Early Americanists.  The editorial team (Sandra Gustafson, editor; Marion Rust, coeditor for reviews; and David Shields, advisory editor) completed the committee.

The University of North Carolina Press and the prize committee congratulate the authors of both of these fine first monographs. The 2017 prize will be awarded to an author’s second or later book, with monographs published in 2015 and 2016 being eligible. The prize alternates between books by established scholars in odd calendar years and first books in even years. It is accompanied by a $2,000 cash award. Watch the journal's website for announcements, and contact editor Sandra M. Gustafson (Gustafson.6@nd.edu) with questions.