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Congratulations to Professor Burnham

Michelle Burnham's essay, “Trade, Time, and the Calculus of Risk in Early Pacific Travel Writing,” has been designated the winner of the Richard Beale Davis Prize by the Modern Language Association.  The Davis Prize recognizes the best published essay in Early American Literature during a given time frame.  For this competition, essays published in the journal in 2011 and 2012 were eligible for the prize.

The following is the Prize Committee’s citation:

Richard Beale Davis Prize Citation 2011-12

“Trade, Time, and the Calculus of Risk in Early Pacific Travel Writing” (EAL 46.3) by Michelle Burnham, Professor of English at Santa Clara University, has been awarded the Richard Beale Davis prize for the best article published in Early American Literature during the past two years.  Among a group of impressive essays, Burnham’s is remarkable for its path breaking orientation, archival richness, and theoretical subtlety.  Succinctly put, Burnham makes a powerful case for the need to make a Pacific turn in early American literary studies.  The essay surveys a range of Pacific travel narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, texts that are often bulky and, for many readers, aesthetically dull and uninteresting, notwithstanding their relation to an important “period of international competition for scientific discovery and commercial profit” in the Pacific.  Along the way, Burnham urges somewhat counter-intuitively that the narratives’ expansiveness is precisely the point; sizeable profits and “new” knowledge Pacific voyages produced depended on narrative “patience and prolongation,” an effect—and affect—of the interdynamic between economics and aesthetics.  Short-term loss (as conceived in abstract terms by investors) could be “averaged and canceled out” across these patiently prolonged narratives in favor of long term gain according to their “calculus of risk.”  In turn, temporal and spatial prolongation “worked to mask or minimize the violence that accompanied such returns, including the violent transoceanic movements of goods (such as fur, and silver) and of bodies (especially the indigenous, women, and sailors).”  Such argumentative suppleness in Burnham’s essay operates alongside its appeal to scholars to expand the archive of travel writings they treat, away from an almost exclusive investment in Atlantic-centered texts and towards Pacific narratives with which the former are not infrequently intertwined and entangled.  Indeed, by provoking readers to redraw the boundaries of the transnational, transoceanic, and intercontinental from a crucial but heretofore overlooked Pacific vantage point, Burnham’s essay has broad implications for the future course of early American literary studies. 

Congratulations on winning this prestigious prize!

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