The Modern Language Association of America has awarded its fifty-first annual James Russell Lowell Prize to Lynn Festa for her book Fiction without Humanity: Person, Animal, Thing in Early Enlightenment Literature and Culture, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The prize is awarded annually for an outstanding book—a literary or linguistic study, a critical edition of an important work, or a critical biography—written by a member of the association.
The James Russell Lowell Prize is one of eighteen awards that will be presented on 9 January 2021, during the association’s annual convention, to be held online. The selection committee members were Susan Bernstein (Brown Univ.); Ivonne del Valle (Univ. of California, Berkeley); Sabine Hake (Univ. of Texas, Austin), chair; Jeremy A. Lopez (Univ. of Toronto); John K. Noyes (Univ. of Toronto); Nicholas D. Paige (Univ. of California, Berkeley); and Katharina Natalia Piechocki (Harvard Univ.). The committee’s citation for the winning book reads:
The ideology of Enlightenment rationality, we are often told, imperiously separates humankind from the world. In a study of dazzling theoretical range and readerly care, Lynn Festa reveals the work necessary for the production and maintenance of the fantasy of human difference. For Festa, it is in the so-called minor genres—fables, riddles, trompe l’oeil painting—that early modern writers and artists learned to experiment with nonhuman perspective, thereby robbing humanity of its traditional dominion over creation while simultaneously, by dint of self-consciousness, asserting a new but permanently anxious superiority. The fictions of art thus perform a humanity whose strength lies in being able to imagine a world without us. With Fiction without Humanity: Person, Animal, Thing in Early Enlightenment Literature and Culture, Festa offers us an early Enlightenment tonally appropriate to our late-Anthropocene moment.
First presented in 1969, the James Russell Lowell Prize is awarded under the auspices of the MLA’s Committee on Honors and Awards. A complete list of current and previous winners can be found on the MLA website.
James Russell Lowell (1819–91) was a scholar and poet. His first important literary activity came as editor of and frequent contributor to the National Anti-slavery Standard. In 1848 Lowell published several volumes of poetry, criticism, humor, and political satire, including The Vision of Sir Launfal and the first Biglow Papers, which firmly established him in the galaxy of American writers of his day. In 1855 he succeeded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as Smith Professor of French and Spanish at Harvard. Lowell was the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly (1857–61) and was later minister to Spain and Britain. James Russell Lowell served as second president of the MLA from 1887 until his death in 1891.