Harvard instructor wins prestigious literary criticism prize
Friday, May 20, 2016

Harvard instructor Kevin Birmingham has won the 2016 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin for his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, published by the Penguin Publishing Group.

The $30,000 award—the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism—is administered for the Truman Capote Estate by the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. 

Birmingham, an instructor in the Harvard College Writing Program, will accept the award in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber Oct. 19 in a public event that will include remarks on the literary topic of his choosing. The Most Dangerous Book, Birmingham's first, was a New York Times bestseller and won the 2015 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction.  

The book was chosen by an international panel of prominent critics and writers—Terry Castle, Garrett Stewart, Michael Wood, John Kerrigan, Elaine Scarry, and Joyce Carol Oates—each of whom nominated two texts. Books of general literary criticism in English published during the last four years are eligible for nomination. After reading all the nominated books, each critic ranked the nominees. 

"It's difficult for me to comprehend that I've received the award for my first book," Birmingham says. "An honor like the Truman Capote award reminds scholars that there really are people out there who notice and who find your work necessary."

Birmingham received his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University in 2009 and returned as a lecturer in history and literature. His research focuses on 19th- and 20th-century fiction and culture, the history of censorship and literary obscenity, race and aesthetics, the avant-garde, literary nonfiction, and graphic novels. 

He describes his book as telling the story of James Joyce's struggle to publish Ulysses, which was labeled obscene and banned in most of the English-speaking world for over a decade. It charts the life of Ulysses, from Joyce's first inspiration to his struggle to write the novel to the fight to publish the book to the bans, the burnings, the smuggling and ultimately the cases that legalized it. 

"That's the role of literary criticism—not to explain literature but to make it feel urgent," says Birmingham. "If you can't feel a critic's love for literature, nothing else will work." 

In a review in The New York Times, Dwight Garner writes, "Mr. Birmingham...appears fully formed in this, his first book. The historian and the writer in him are utterly in sync." Garner says Birmingham has a great instinct for detail and "marches through this material with authority and grace." 

Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club, writes, "The Most Dangerous Book is riveting narrative nonfiction, populated with enough real larger-than-life characters and twists to make a fiction writer envious. Through Kevin Birmingham's masterful voice and impeccable research, this story of a singular book that changed the world proves in dramatic fashion that the history of literature is not a landscape but a battlefield.” 

The Truman Capote Estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust in 1994 during a breakfast at Tiffany's, in New York City, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's

In addition to the administration of the literary criticism award, the Writers' Workshop's involvement with the trust includes awarding Truman Capote fellowships to UI students in creative writing.

The creation of the Truman Capote Literary Trust was stipulated in the author's will, and the Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects Capote's frequently expressed concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. The awards are designed to reward and encourage excellence in the field. 

Newton Arvin, in whose memory the award was established, was one of the critics Capote admired. However, Arvin's academic career at Smith College was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed.

The Writers' Workshop is a graduate program in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Graduate College

Past winners of the Capote award

  • P.N. Furbank, Open University
  • Helen Vendler, Harvard University
  • John Felstiner, Stanford University
  • John Kerrigan, Cambridge University
  • Charles Rosen, University of Chicago
  • Elaine Scarry and Philip Fisher, Harvard University
  • Malcolm Bowie, Oxford University
  • Declan Kiberd, University College, Dublin
  • Seamus Heaney, Irish Nobel laureate
  • Susan Stewart, Princeton University
  • Angus Fletcher, City University of New York Graduate School
  • Geoffrey Hartman, Yale University
  • William Gass, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Helen Small, Pembroke College, Oxford University
  • Geoffrey Hill, Boston University
  • Seth Lerer, University of California at San Diego
  • Mark McGurl, University of California at Los Angeles
  • Elaine Showalter, Princeton University
  • Marina Warner, New York University Abu Dhabi
  • Fredric Jameson, Duke University
  • Stanley Plumly, University of Maryland.