English Department Hosts Reception for Clayes Essay Prize Winners

The English Department hosted a reception for the winners of this year’s Clayes Essay Prize on Wednesday, October 9th in the McCormick Lounge in Coffey Hall. Established in memory of Dr. Stanley Clayes, the Prize is awarded annually to the graduate student who submits the best paper written for a graduate English course during the preceding year. Yet the quality of this year’s submissions led to three prizes being awarded: first place went to Katie Dyson for her paper “Narrating Violence: Memento and Postmodern Theory,” while second place awards were presented to both Anna Cooperrider for her paper “Making Commotion in the Texts of 2 Henry VI” and Sarah Polen for her essay “Unclassing Determinism: Reading Suicide in Sister Carrie and The Custom of the Country.”

Following a brief introduction recalling Dr. Clayes’s life and the origins of the Prize, Wes Peart introduced Dr. Pamela Caughie, for whose “Postmodernism” course Katie wrote her essay. According to Dr. Caughie, whose course provided a rigorous and wide-ranging introduction to theories of postmodernism, Katie was awarded the top prize for “her reach as much as for her grasp” in confronting the theoretical complexities embedded in postmodern discourse. Katie spoke next, thanking the Clayes Committee, Dr. Caughie, and the other students in her class before giving a summary of her essay and an account of the challenges she encountered in writing it. As Katie explained, her work on the essay began with a central question: if we take postmodern theory at its word that everything is discursive, then what are we to make of violence? While a number of postmodern writers succeed in theorizing violence—for example, by suggesting that violence as a category of behavior is discursively constructed—they usually fail to provide any account of the ethical grounds justifying responses to it. However, Katie hypothesized, such grounds might be found in turning from postmodern theory to postmodern narrative. Indeed, Christopher Nolan’s film Memento—whose multiple and chronologically-broken narratives image the postmodern condition of selfhood—suggests that a viable postmodern ethics can be found in the recognition of the multiplicity of perspectives and the inescapability of the narratives of others.

Next to speak was Anna Cooperrider, one of the two second place winners. Introduced by Dr. Suzanne Gossett, for whose course “Shakespeare” she wrote an essay described by Dr. Gossett as “absolutely exemplary” in meeting all of the course’s goals, Anna thanked the EGSA, Dr. Gossett, and the Department before providing a summary of her essay, which argued that textual variations between the quarto and folio editions of 2 Henry VI provide evidence of Shakespeare’s changing political commitments. Granting that certain knowledge of Shakespeare’s politics is ultimately inaccessible to modern scholarship, Anna argued that the existence of whole-scale variations between the strongly monarchical Q and the more politically ambiguous F texts of the play suggest that differences in the F text were due to authorial revision rather than memorial reconstruction. For example, the fact that Q contains an entire scene depicting Cade’s rebellion from a monarchical perspective while no such scene appears in F appears to contradict the hypothesis that Q represents a memorial reconstruction, for cases of memorial reconstruction usually produce small textual variations rather than additions or subtractions of entire scenes. But if F does represent authorial revision, and if many of those revisions transform overtly monarchical passages into politically more ambiguous scenes, then the F text of 2 Henry VI hints at a shift in Shakespeare’s politics, from a strongly monarchical stance toward one of increasing skepticism about English monarchy, perhaps occasioned by the outrages of the widely-unpopular James I.

Finally, Sarah Polen discussed her essay, which tied Anna’s for second place. Following an introduction by Dr. Jack Kerkering, who praised the Clayes competition’s place in the graduate program and for whose class “American Realism” the paper was written, Sarah discussed the origins and argument of her essay. Explaining that she was initially struck by similarities in the narrative arcs of two American realist characters—George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie and The Custom of the Country’s Ralph Marvell—Sarah described how her essay sought to grapple with how these parallel trajectories reflect the class, gender, and naturalist literary conventions associated with the Progressive Era. According to Sarah, commitments on the part of both the middle-class George and the upper-class Ralph to outdated conceptions of masculinity prevent both characters from assimilating into progressivist culture and lead inexorably to socio-economic decline concluded in both their cases by suicide. But insofar as both texts represent these commitments as naturalistically determined, they modify contemporary naturalist conventions by representing not only lower-class but also middle- and upper-class characters as determined by external forces, and by locating these forces in social categories like class and gender rather than inherited biological predispositions.

A question-and-answer session followed the presentations, with the three award winners fielding questions from faculty members and graduate students about the productive and restrictive nature of course constraints on writing and about plans for publication-oriented revision, as well as about the papers themselves.

The event concluded with a reception.

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