Early American Literature Announces 2022 Book Prize Recipient

The following is the 2022 Book Prize announcement from Early American Literature, the official journal of both the Society of Early Americanists and the MLA’s Forum on Early American Literature. 

Wendy Raphael Roberts, Associate Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY, has been selected to receive the 2022 Early American Literature Book Prize. Roberts’s Awakening Verse: The Poetics of Early American Evangelicalism was published by Oxford University Press in 2020. The prize selection committee consisted of Early American Literature’s Co-Editor for Reviews, Katy Chiles; our Advisory Editor, Sandra Gustafson; incoming Chair of the Modern Language Association’s Early American Forum, Kirsten Silva Gruesz ; and prior President of the Society of Early Americanists, Patrick Erben, with EAL Editor Marion Rust as an ex officio member. We thank our publisher, the University of North Carolina Press, for continuing to support the award, which carries a $2,000 cash prize.

The selection committee praised Awakening Verse as “well structured, coherent, erudite and up to date”: a “rare and important work” existing “at the forefront of a critical turn that investigates aesthetics, feeling, and faith as formative elements in the development of American culture from the mid eighteenth-century through the Romantic period and beyond.” Awakening Verse attends to revival poetry’s role in engendering the outpouring of religious enthusiasm that characterized the First and Second Great Awakening. It represents the best of a recent wave of research that focuses on the aesthetic and other pleasures to be found in early American Calvinist-based faith traditions, countering the common misconception of Puritanism as a religion for which misery was the only assurance. Within this trajectory, it does something entirely new by focusing on the overlooked archive of popular religious poetry, written and read by everyday individuals – often women – throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. It was revival poetry that drew evangelical converts to their faith, Roberts argues, even more than the sermons, hymnodies, and other religious literature more commonly associated with conversion. To put it briefly: “Poetry saved.” 

In the process, poetry changed. Once distinguished from the hymn as an elite form “fit for the cultured and educated reader,” Roberts explains, the poetry championed by “poet-ministers” and “sound believers” alike “aspired to be a universally accessible aesthetic form.” The writers treated in this study represent that widening universe: Scottish theologian Ralph Erskine; well-known Boston poet Sarah Parsons Moorhead; foundational Black author Phillis Wheatley (Peters); and Virginian Baptist convert James Ireland, among many others. In a book focused on populist religious and literary developments of the eighteenth century, readers were just as important as the authors themselves: whether it be the coteries that formed around the work of Wheatley, Moorhead, and Ireland, or the lone sailor’s wife who snuck a revival poem into her husband’s store of novels, with the desired effect. Readers of Awakening Verse will learn in its opening pages just how important that single slip of paper was to become: to him and, taken broadly, to the readers of this book. Awakening Verse may likewise be seen as the slip of paper that, dropped into our stack of scholarly tomes, radically changes the worldview of anyone who comes across it. The committee heartily congratulates Wendy Roberts for her signal achievement.

The EAL Book Prize is awarded in even calendar years to a first monograph published in the prior two years, and in odd years to a second or subsequent book. Next year’s prize will be awarded in the latter category, and monographs published in 2021 and 2022 are eligible. The prize carries a $2000 award stipend. The deadline for submission is March 1, 2023. Please consult the journal’s website at https://eal.uky.edu/ for additional information.