Hennig Cohen Prize Award Winners
The Cohen Prize honors the memory of Hennig Cohen with an annual award for the best article, book chapter, or essay in a book about Herman Melville. The award is typically made in the year after the article or chapter is published. Preference is given to newer scholars in the field of Melville studies.
Cohen Award Winners
(scroll down for essay titles and summaries)
(the year listed is the year in which the winning article was published; the award is given in the following year)
Spencer Tricker, 2017
Matthew Knip, 2016
(Honorable Mention: Kelly Ross)
Paul Hurh, 2015
John Cyril Barton, 2014
Jennifer Greiman, 2013
Christopher Freeburg, 2012
Dominic Mastroianni, 2011
Cody Marrs, 2010
Jeannine Marie DeLombard, 2009
Hester Blum, 2008
Matthew Cordova Frankel, 2007
Jeffory A. Clymer, 2006
Geoffrey Sanborn, 2005
Naomi C. Reed, 2004
Ralph Savarese, 2003
Robin Grey, 2002
Caleb Crain, 2001
Maurice S. Lee, 2000
Sam Otter, 1999
Geoffrey Sanborn, 1998
2017: Spencer Tricker, “‘Five Dusky Phantoms’: Gothic Form and Cosmopolitan Shipwreck in Melville’s Moby-Dick,” which was published in Studies in American Fiction
Here’s what the award’s committee had to say:Tricker’s compelling analysis of the figure of the Malay in Moby-Dick richly complicates the continuing inquiry into Melville’s literary engagement with racialization and imperialism. Combining biopolitical theory with archival research, Tricker surveys portrayals of the composite, fictive “Malay” – alternatively, “Lascar” or “Manilla-man”– in antebellum print culture. Itself “a product of scientific racism,” the term “Malay,” came to refer to different groups of maritime contract laborers from South Asia and the Asian Pacific. Much as the menacing Fedallah supplants the amiable Queequeg in Moby-Dick, Tricker suggests, Melville’s gothic figuration of the former disrupts the promising global community represented by the latter. “Rather than symptomatically expressing the racial anxieties of America’s collective unconscious,” Tricker demonstrates, “Melville’s Gothic itself constructs Malays as symbols of irreclaimable communitarian exception who pose a unique threat to projections of cosmopolitan futurity.” Culminating in a brilliant reading of Manilla rope in “The Line,” Tricker’s fascinating, ambitious essay recontextualizes race across the Pacific. His analysis of how Melville’s Pacific Gothic “vision of contested global futurity registers the vanishing point at which humanist desires and racial antagonisms dissonantly converge” initiates a radical reassessment of race in Melville’s fiction.
2016: Matthew Knip: “Homosocial Desire and Erotic Communitas in Melville’s Imaginary: The Evidence of Van Buskirk,” ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture 62.2 (2016): 355-414.
This year’s Hennig Cohen Prize for the best essay or chapter on Herman Melville goes to Matthew Knip for his essay “Homosocial Desire and Erotic Communitas in Melville’s Imaginary: The Evidence of Van Buskirk.” Knip reconsiders Melville’s conceptions of desire and community on the basis of a study of the diaries of Philip C. Van Buskirk, an American sailor whose writings extensively describe the sexual practices of working-class sailors in the 1850s. Through incisive readings of Typee, White-Jacket, Billy Budd, and "John Marr," Knip critiques accounts of Melville that rely on “anachronistically heterosexualized sailors,” or present homoerotic desire as either repressed or expressed only privately. Knip argues that Melville’s portrayals of homosocial desire “as a binding paradisiacal glue” are rooted not only in his powerful imagination, but also and crucially in his inhabitation of seafaring communities in which social masturbation and sex between men were often accepted as matters of course that did not constitute sexual identity. Knip’s essay is an outstanding work of cultural history and a compelling contribution to our understanding of Melville’s social thought.
Additionally, the committee decided to award an Honorable Mention to Kelly Ross for “Babo’s Heterochronic Creativity” published in Leviathan 18.1 (March 2016): 5-21.
2015: Paul Hurh: "Dread: Space, Time, and Automata in The Piazza Tales," American Terror: The Feeling of Thinking in Edwards, Poe, and Melville (Stanford University Press, 2015).
This year's Hennig Cohen Prize for the best article, book chapter, or essay on Herman Melville goes to Paul Hurh for "Dread: Space, Time, and Automata in The Piazza Tales," a chapter in his book American Terror: The Feeling of Thinking in Edwards, Poe, and Melville (Stanford University Press, 2015). Hurh offers a powerful argument for reading The Piazza Tales as a work in its own right, while showing the importance of terror to Melville's conceptions of affective and intellectual experience. Carefully attending to the "motley nature" of The Piazza Tales, Hurh proposes a "unified reading" that reveals a book intensely concerned with moods, "deep undercurrents of melancholy, anxiety, and unease," that he describes as forms of terror. Hurh links Melville's terror to a concept of dread (Angest) developed by Kierkegaard to account for human freedom, and transformed in Heidegger's examination of the spatial and temporal nature of existence. Like the philosophers, Melville provides "affective descriptions of philosophical dilemmas." More particularly, Hurh shows, Melville's practices of "spatial deformation and temporal miscalibration" produce a startling "understanding of time and space as a function of terror." Hurh's chapter illuminates subtle connections among the tales of The Piazza Tales, while offering extended, revelatory readings of the relatively neglected "The Lightning-Rod Man" and "The Bell-Tower." Hurh reads Melville's book with an extraordinary balance of philosophical sophistication, historical acuity, and unabashed devotion to the "strange particulars" of Melville's writing. This chapter promises to change the way The Piazza Tales is read, while challenging readers to reconsider Melville's thinking about materiality, subjectivity, interpersonal relations, and philosophy.
2014: John Cyril Barton: "Melville, MacKenzie, and Military Executions," Literary Executions: Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820-1925 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).
The Cohen Prize committee unanimously agreed that John Cyril Barton's "Melville, MacKenzie, and Military Executions"—from his book Literary Executions: Capital Punishment and American Culture, 1820-1925 (Johns Hopkins UP, 2014)—was the best essay or chapter in Melville studies. Barton masterfully elucidates Melville's sustained interest in executions and the broader questions they pose regarding justice, sovereignty, and storytelling. Moving from White-Jacket to Billy Budd, Barton shows how the Somers mutiny, and the accompanying debates about capital punishment, formed a touchstone for Melville's career. The chapter enlists an eclectic range of historical materials, putting Melville into conversation with Alexander Slidell MacKenzie, Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, and other legal documents and pieces of nineteenth-century print culture. In doing so, the chapter reveals the cultural dialogues out of which Melville's writings emerged and with which he was so imaginatively and philosophically engaged. The argument around which the chapter revolves—that differences between White-Jacket and Billy Budd can be traced to a "changed notion of sovereign authority behind the law that came with the Civil War and the emergence of the Republican Party"—will alter how scholars think about Melville's career and his response to the Civil War. The chapter's graceful fusion of a legal approach to literature with an attentiveness to print culture and theoretical considerations regarding death and execution offers a promising model for future work in Melville studies.
2013: Jennifer Greiman: “Circles upon Circles: Tautology, Form, and the Shape of Democracy in Tocqueville and Melville,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1.1 (Spring 2013): 121-146.
2012: Christopher Freeburg: “Embodying the ‘Assaults of Time’: ‘The Encantadas,’” Melville and the Idea of Blackness (Cambridge University Press, 2012): 132-164.
The Cohen Prize committee for 2012 unanimously agreed that the best chapter or essay of the year was Christopher Freeburg’s “Embodying the ‘Assaults of Time’: ‘The Encantadas,’” chapter four of his monograph in Melville and the Idea of Blackness (Cambridge University Press). Freeburg finds in Melville’s descriptions of the Galapagos a rhetoric of “blackness” that “destabilizes normative modes of time and social life” associated with U.S. colonial expansion in the Pacific. The timeless, barren landscapes in Melville’s sketches confound the idea of progress central to U.S. imperial ambitions, figuring such ambitions as ultimately unproductive and rightly abandoned. This sociopolitical context is conjoined with an existential context as well: the fate of characters like Hunilla, the Dog-King, and Oberlus forces readers to confront “the overwhelming vulnerability” caused by the experience of timelessness associated with the islands' blackness. When the metaphors of blackness in “The Encantadas” are read in this doubled sense, “colonial mastery, rooted in a telos of temporal progress, becomes an utter fiction.” Freeburg’s insistence that Melville’s representations of race are both historically concrete and philosophically abstract (bearing on questions of ontology and epistemology) makes the book crucial for thinking about how Melville’s writings address the complex relation between literature and history.
2011: Dominic Mastroianni: "Revolutionary Time and the Future of Democracy in Melville's Pierre," ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 56.4 (2011): 391-423.
Mastroianni's essay is a provocative, brilliantly managed reading of Melville's novel as a political allegory concerned with the nature of revolution and the question of "whether a permanent democracy can result from revolution." In this extraordinarily original, illuminating essay, Mastroianni reveals Melville to be engaged in a heady and sophisticated exploration of "the time of revolutionary foundation," one where democracy is shown to require "a structural impermanence driven by a call for social and economic equality" that goes beyond the calls for fraternity in the French Revolution of 1848 to include a call for sisterhood and equality for women. The members of the Cohen Prize committee believe this is an essay that will challenge readers not only to rethink the political dimensions of Melville's novel but to move politics to the center of the author's concerns in this narrative.
2010: Cody Marrs: "A Wayward Art: Battle-Pieces and Melville's Poetic Turn," American Literature (March 2010).
Marrs's essay offers a brilliant and ambitious rethinking of Melville's career as a poet and the sudden, puzzling shift from the writing of prose narrative to poetry as a result of the author's experience of the American Civil War. Contrary to several earlier assessments, Marrs's essay argues that this "turn" marks not a retreat from the world or from Melville's recent failures in the marketplace, but a profound realignment of his political and artistic thinking. In Marrs's reading, the Civil War reshaped Melville's career even as it suggested a new and horrifying sense of history as a relentlessly cyclical forceÑan "extended tragic repetition" or series of related destructions with a "traumatic kernel" at its core. The poems in Battle-Pieces, in this searching, multi-layered reassessment, provide more than an extensive collection of meditations on the events of the war and the larger conflict itself; they stand as an "immanent account" of Melville's own experience of the Civil War as an historical event and of his transformation as a poet. The members of the Cohen Prize committee believe this is an essay that will challenge readers to rethink the reasons for Melville's embrace of poetry as his chosen medium and also help to repair the strange neglect of Civil War literature in Americanist work more generally.
2009: Jeannine Marie DeLombard: "Salvaging Legal Personhood: Melville's Benito Cereno," American Literature, 81.1 (March 2009): 35Ð64.
Lombard's essay is remarkably fresh and acute in its exploration of the legal dimensions of "Benito Cereno." At its center is a simple, alarming question: "when does the dependent, irresponsible captive metamorphose into the independent, autonomous legal person?" Although we might imagine that the ordinary modes of "civil agency," such as "contract making and testimony," would be sufficient, nothing could be farther from the truth. As DeLombard shows, the inescapable narrative dimension of those modes of agency "break[s] down the subject," insofar as the legitimating narrative is necessarily grounded in a past moment when the subject was not a subject at all. Even if newly freed people do not involve themselves in those modes of public identification, they can never feel entirely free, DeLombard argues, given that "the human faculty of memory refuses to limit itself to officially designated temporal distinctions between captivity and autonomy." Viewed in this light, the overshadowed Benito Cereno of the story's final paragraphs is by no means an idiosyncratic figure. He is, instead, a representative image of all recently liberated subjects. This is an essay that will make us all think differently about "Benito Cereno" and enhance our understanding of the meanings of slavery, property, and "personhood" in the nineteenth century.
2008: Hester Blum: "Douglass's and Melville's 'Alphabets of the Blind,'" Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation, ed. Robert S. Levine and Samuel Otter (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008): 257-78.
The Cohen Prize committee for 2008 unanimously agreed that the best essay or chapter of the year was Hester Blum’s “Douglass’s and Melville’s ‘Alphabets of the Blind,’” in Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation, ed. Robert S. Levine and Samuel Otter (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008): 257-78. By setting Douglass’s elisions of rape in his 1845 Narrative alongside Melville’s similar elisions in the Hunilla chapter of “The Encantadas,” Blum makes it possible to register, in each case, the cost of “the euphemization of acts of violence.” She goes on to argue, however, that both Douglass and Melville are “attentive to and angry with” such euphemizations. Just as Douglass ultimately condemns “southerners’ fraudulent manipulation of language,” she writes, so does Melville “[chafe] under the idea that the narrative text must be mutilated in order to produce true or full accounts.” It is a lucid, subtle, and forceful argument, and it makes an original contribution to an important subject of inquiry in the scholarship on Douglass and Melville.
2007: Matthew Cordova Frankel: "Tattoo Art: The Composition of Text, Voice and Race in Melville's Moby-Dick," ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 53.2 (2007), 114-47.
The award committee found Frankel's article to be a substantive, energetic work that opens up new possibilities for future criticism of a major work. It takes a concern of early Melville criticsÑvitalityÑand offers a trenchant reconsideration by putting Matthiessen in conversation with Deleuze, thus countering the former's knee-jerk dismissal by contemporary scholars as theoretically naive. Noting the essay's magesterial command of its material, the committee was particularly impressed by how it manages to orchestrate multiple arguments in a comprehensive, almost concentrically developing, way and, at the same time, to offer elaborate close readings, all the while avowing an approach that makes aesthetics useful, attractive again, and tractable. By tying aesthetics to ideological critique (the essay's attention to race), the author nicely deconstructs the binary that gives rise to the notion of an "aesthetic turn," one intended as a corrective to the purported excesses of political approaches to literature. The committee was delighted to encounter an essay that evinces such dynamism and extends its congratulations to Matthew Cordova Frankel of the University of Rhode Island.
2006: Jeffory A. Clymer: "Property and Selfhood in Herman Melville's Pierre," Nineteenth-Century Literature, 61.2 (September 2006): 171-99.
2005: Geoffrey Sanborn, “Whence Come You, Queequeg?” American Literature, 77 (2005): 227-57.
2003: Ralph James Savarese, "Nervous Wrecks and Ginger-nuts: Bartleby at a Standstill," Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, 5:2 (2003): 19-49.
2002: Robin Grey, "Annotations on Civil War: Melville's Battle-Pieces and Milton's War in Heaven," Special Issue on Melville and Milton, ed. Robin Grey, Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, 4:1-2 (2002): 51-70.
2001: Caleb Crain, "The Heart Ruled Out: Melville's Palinode," American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001): 238-70.
1999: Samuel Otter, "Inscribed Hearts in Pierre," Melville's Anatomies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999): 208-54. American Literature, 72:3 (2000): 495-519.
1998: Geoffrey Sanborn, "Walking Shadows: 'Benito Cereno' and the Colonial Stage," The Sign of the Cannibal: Melville and the Making of a Postcolonial Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998): 171-200.