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New York, NY – 14 December 2020 – The Modern
Language Association of America today announced the winner of its fifty-seventh
annual William Riley Parker Prize for an outstanding article published in PMLA,
the association’s journal of literary scholarship. The author of this year’s
winning essay is Sarah Wasserman, assistant professor of English at the
University of Delaware, Newark. Her article “Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and
the Persistence of Urban Forms” appeared in the May 2020 issue of PMLA.
The William Riley Parker Prize is one of eighteen awards that will be presented on 9 January
2021, during the association’s annual convention, to be held online. The members of the selection
committee were Christopher D. Castiglia (Penn State Univ., University Park); Carrie Hyde (Univ.
of California, Los Angeles); Melissa E. Sanchez (Univ. of Pennsylvania), chair; and John H.
Smith (Univ. of California, Irvine). The committee’s citation for the winning article reads:
Sarah Wasserman’s “Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and the Persistence of Urban Forms”
is a beautifully written essay on the political and temporal paradoxes of what we now call
gentrification. Wasserman provides a compelling account of the formal strategies that
Ellison and Himes developed to show “how infrastructure registers urban change,
congealing past and present” and thereby disrupting simple notions of loss, preservation,
and progress. Instead of seeing Ellison and Himes as writing in antithetical genres,
aesthetic registers, and fictional forms—pulp detective story versus psychologically
realistic novel—we can understand them both as using “the conventions of the novel as a
backdrop against which they plot formal changes and social transformations that remain
incomplete.” Wasserman demonstrates that by examining treatments of objects and urban
spaces, rather than explorations of human psychology, we can reevaluate the taxonomies
we use to value and understand literature and the political histories it mediates.
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