Twentieth-Century Literature's

Article excerpt

The winner of this year's prize is Paul Stasi's "A 'Synchronous but More Subtle Migration': Passing and Primitivism in Toomer's Cane." The judge is Gary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Professor Nelson is the current national president of the American Association of University Professors and has written widely on modern poetry and on the politics of higher education. His most recent book is No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom.

Professor Nelson writes:

  Over the course of my career, I have had the occasion to evaluate
  several hundred essays for publication--an easier task, it turns out,
  than deciding which of the nominated essays is the single best. All
  the nominations for the Twentieth-Century Literature annual Kappel
  Prize are extremely well written and carefully argued. All take up
  important topics and offer original insights on them. All bring major
  theoretical issues to bear on the texts they analyze. And all the
  authors are skilled close readers. The subjects are very different,
  but there are no sound reasons to fault any of the authors.

  I have selected "A 'Synchronous but More Subtle Migration': Passing
  and Primitivism in Toomer's Cane" as the winning essay. This reading
  of Toomer's career--grounded necessarily in Cane--upsets the view
  that had been largely universal in the previous scholarship: that the
  racial and historical focus in Toomer's early work was basically
  abandoned in his later mystical phase. The author instead gives a
  deep and innovative reading of Toomer's Utopian investment in
  miscegenation and finds the seeds of it in Cane itself. Toomer's
  career thus is refigured as developmental, rather than fractured, and
  we are given grounds to take his late work seriously.

  But what makes this essay of special importance is not only that it
  offers a fresh interpretation of a signal modern career but also that
  it sets that reinterpretation in the context of the legal and social
  constructions of race that dominated the late nineteenth and early
  twentieth centuries. From the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court
  decision through the middle of the next century, tremendous energy
  was invested in reinforcing the visible readability of racial
  differences. …