For Immediate Release
December 8, 2009
Phone: (202) 745-3239
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Christopher Benfey received the 2009 Christian Gauss Award for A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
(The Penguin Press, 2009).
The $10,000 annual award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society, given for books in the field of literary scholarship and criticism, was created in 1950 to honor a former Phi Beta Kappa president and distinguished scholar at Princeton University. The awards ceremony was held December 4 in Washington, D.C.
At the close of the Civil War, the lives of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade intersected in an intricate map of friendship, family, and romance that marked a milestone in the development of American art and literature. Using the image of a flitting hummingbird as a metaphor for the gossamer strands that connect these larger-than-life personalities, Christopher Benfey re-creates that tantalizing summer of 1882.
“I’m absolutely thrilled by winning the Christian Gauss Award from Phi Beta Kappa,” Benfey said. “What I love best about Gauss as a figure is that Edmund Wilson said there was no big theory Gauss imparted to his students but instead a sense of fluidity and indeterminancy, and that so matches my own work,” he added.
Sara Spence, chair of the Gauss Committee and professor of classics at the University of Georgia, says A Summer of Hummingbirds is “[a]n exhilarating look at the intersecting worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade that relies as much on serendipity and juxtaposition as on historic cause and effect.”
“Private stories and public careers are shown to interweave in extraordinary ways, producing a tale that is eminently readable even as it suggests new and fertile directions for literary criticism,” she observed.
Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, Benfey has emerged over the past decade as a prolific critic, essayist and author, whose reviews in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement have established him as a distinguished contemporary arbiter of modern and late 20th century American literature.
Also this year, Peter Trachtenberg received the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning
(Little, Brown and Company, 2008), and Harold Varmus received the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science for The Art and Politics of Science
(W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2009).
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About the Phi Beta Kappa Society
Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest academic honor society. It has chapters at 280 institutions and more than half a million members throughout the country. Its mission is to champion education in the liberal arts and sciences, to recognize academic excellence, and to foster freedom of thought and expression. Among its programs are academic and literary awards, lectureships, a fellowship, a professorship, and publication of The American Scholar, an award-winning quarterly journal.