Congratulations to Columbia professor of comparative literature Brent Hayes Edwards who has won the 2019 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin for his book, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination, released by Harvard University Press in 2017.
“I am honored to be linked, even in such a peripheral way, with the legacy of one of the great queer iconoclast American writers of the past century, an artist who from the beginning of his career exploded the putative boundaries between literary genres,” says Edwards. “I’m also moved to know that Capote was motivated to start the prize out of his concern for the future of literary criticism — there’s something poignant and unique in the fact that the award was founded as a hugely popular creative writer’s way of insisting on, and celebrating, the importance of scholarship.”
The $30,000 award is the largest cash prize in English-language literary criticism and is designated to encourage and commend excellence in the field.
Edwards is a professor of comparative literature at Columbia and is widely recognized for his groundbreaking scholarship on cultures of the African diaspora. He is also a core faculty member of the interdisciplinary Center for Jazz Studies where he has been deeply involved with scholarship on black music for years. His first book, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in 2003 and received the John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association, the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Society for French Historical Studies, and runner-up for the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association. A former co-editor of the journal Social Text, Edwards has edited five books (including scholarly editions of classic works by W. E. B. Du Bois, Joseph Conrad, and Claude McKay), and serves as the Harlem Renaissance period editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Epistrophies, Edwards’ second monograph, received the 2018 ASCAP Foundation Virgil Thomson Award for Outstanding Music Criticism in the pop music field in addition to the Truman Capote Award.
Epistrophies grew directly directly out of his work in the field of jazz and music, incubated especially in his course “Jazz and Literary Imagination” which he has been teaching at Columbia for more than a decade.
“Edwards aims not just to hear, but to read, write, and think across a range of radically different sources,” writes Colin Vanderburg when reviewing Epistrophies for the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2018. “… He aims to expand the domain of ‘jazz literature’ beyond poetry and fiction ‘influenced by music,’ surveying what he calls the genre’s ‘ancillary’ texts, including letters, dairies, interviews, liner notes, and more, with a focus on writings by musicians themselves.”
Edwards understanding of the interrelations between different art forms originates from his own experience studying music and performing dance and choreography. He studied piano and trombone as a child and took courses in music theory and composition as an undergraduate at Yale. While he was in college, Edwards also joined a modern dance company in New Haven. He later co-directed, choreographed, and danced in the collaborative dance company 8 Lives Dance Collective in the early 1990s after he received an MA and before completing a PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia.
The Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin is administered for the Truman Capote Estate by Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.The Truman Capote Estate fittingly 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.
The award was established in the memory of Newton Arvin, a literary critic Capote admired. However, Arvin’s academic career at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed.
Epistophies was selected for the award by a panel of six prominent critics and writers. After each nominated two texts from the eligible books of general literary criticism in English published during the last four years. Reading through the books, each panel member ranked the nominees and selected the winner.
The Truman Capote Award Ceremony will take place at 4 p.m. Oct. 16 in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. The event will feature remarks by Brent Hayes Edwards and a reception in the Old Capitol Museum. Both events are open to the public.