Richard Beale Davis Prize 2019

January 18, 2021

Modern Language Association Forum on Early American Literature 

2019 Richard Beale Davis Prize 

Award Recipients: Reed Gochberg and Ana Schwartz

Prize Committee: Jeffrey Glover, Kirsten Silva Gruesz, and Martha Elena Rojas

The prize committee is pleased to name Reed Gochberg’s “Circulating Objects: Crevecoeur's ‘Curious Book’ and the American Philosophical Society Cabinet” and Ana Schwartz’s “‘Mercy as Well as Extremity’: Forts, Fences, and Fellow Feeling in New England Settlement” as co-winners of the 2019 Richard Beale Davis prize for the best essay published in Early American Literature. While the committee considered many worthy contributions to the journal, these essays were distinguished by their virtuoso interpretations of key texts as well as their ambitious reimagining of the field.

Gochberg’s “Circulating Objects” makes an innovative contribution to the study of archives and collections as the foundation of early American literature. Much scholarship in recent decades has portrayed the creation of museums and libraries as a key basis of colonial power and national identity. Yet this work has tended to assume that colonial archives were centralized and rationally organized depositories, the source of the colonial state’s own projection of power. Gochberg’s essay unsettles this paradigm by examining how early American archivists ruminated on the loss, dispersal, and destruction of their collections. “Circulating Objects” takes as its starting point J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s donation of a “curious book” of unusual plant-based papers to the American Philosophical Society in 1789. Gochberg reads Crèvecoeur’s gift as a signal instance of how literary and philosophical societies saw the donation and circulation of natural, textual, and mechanical objects as a central part of creating and organizing knowledge. Yet this very circulation of texts and objects—so crucial to knowledge creation—also threatened to undo the work of collecting and cataloguing that lay at the heart of the archival enterprise, as texts and objects were discarded or lost. Pursuing the entanglement of texts and plants embodied by Crèvecoeur’s “curious book,” Gochberg’s essay traces Crèvecoeur’s contemplations on natural and textual mediums and their inevitable decay as they pass in—and out—of archives.      

Schwartz’s “‘Mercy as Well as Extremity’” takes up the notion of writing’s power to cultivate feelings within a body politic, which has shaped the field of American literary studies across periods. Recent scholarship has brought back into view the importance of sympathy in the rhetoric of early English settlers. Balancing this rhetoric against the material fact of the Plymouth colony’s anxious building of walls, fences, and forts, Schwartz challenges the figure of the sensitive Pilgrim. In Schwartz’s account sympathy, as an imaginative identification of oneself with another, is not only a bond connecting the English settlers across their internal fault-lines of belief and motive, but a means of placing their indigenous neighbors on the literal and figurative outside. She argues that Edward Winslow’s Good News from New England and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation describe acts of mercy and temperance as evidence of their “capacity to produce vulnerability and fear” in the Wampanoags, Massachusetts, and Patuxet whose sovereignty they threaten, concluding provocatively that “sympathy actively complemented the naturalization of settler violence in America.” At once an intricate critique of Christian social order and an unsparing examination of such violence, “‘Mercy as Well as Extremity’” transforms our understanding of some of early America’s most familiar texts.