Revenge Tragedy wins Capote Award


John Kerrigan's Revenge Tragedy received the 1998 Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin. Kerrigan spoke at the award ceremony on April 30 in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol.

Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon by John Kerrigan, University lecturer in English and Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, is the 1998 winner of the Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin. Administered by the Writers' Workshop, the $50,000 award is the world's largest annual cash prize for literary criticism.

Kerrigan received the award in a ceremony April 30 in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol. The event included an address by Kerrigan. The award was presented to Kerrigan by Alan Schwartz, co-trustee of the Capote Literary Trust. The event also featured remarks by President Mary Sue Coleman. Houston Diehl of the English department introduced Kerrigan.

Kerrigan's book, published by the Oxford University Press in 1996, was selected by an international panel of prominent critics and writers Peter Sacks, Stephen Greenblatt, Anthony Appiah, Richard Poirier, J.M. Coetzee, and Michael Wood each of whom nominated two books. Books of general literary criticism in English, published during the last four years, were eligible for nomination.

The panelists' choice was reviewed and confirmed by the award's administrative committee: Frank Conroy, director of the Writers' Workshop; workshop faculty member Jorie Graham, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in poetry; and fiction writer, philosopher, and critic William Gass, head of the International Writing Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

Kerrigan was born in Liverpool in 1956, and after studying at Oxford he pursued his scholarly career at Cambridge.

His scholarly interests are wide-ranging, including Shakespeare, English literature 1550-1700, and British and Irish poetry since the 1960s. He is the author of many studies and reviews of British, Irish, and American poetry and drama; and his editing includes Shakespeare's Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (Penguin, 1986) and the essay collection English Comedy (Cambridge, 1994).

Kerrigan's reviews of new verse have appeared in the Sunday Times in London, the London Review of Books and other periodicals. He is now at work on a book about contemporary British and Irish poetry.

Kerrigan says that his Capote Award-winning volume grew out of a fascination with the polarity of the tradition of revenge tragedy: "I was attracted to revenge tragedy because of its fusion of brute violence and high artifice (a phenomenon which raises questions about the nature of art itself), and because it deals with impulses too morally and psychologically complex to be readily categorized as either good or bad.

"The book allowed me to bring together a range of remarkable texts (as well as opera, films, and paintings), in both 'high' and 'popular' culture from Greek tragedy to Dracula, from the Bible to 'Fatal Attraction' while engaging with topics and questions which are important in the contemporary world: domestic violence; how murder is gendered; is capital punishment justified?; what is a just war?; how is brutality mixed up with amusement?"

Revenge Tragedy has won praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Terry Eagleton wrote in London's Times Literary Supplement that the book is ". . . a major work of literary scholarship, daunting in scope, and subtle in perception."

Writing in the New York Review of Books, critic Frank Kermode recommended Revenge Tragedy for its "exemplary learning [and] exceptional scholarly curiosity. . . A book to disturb anyone's intellectual peace."

The Capote estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust in 1994, during a breakfast at Tiffany's in New York City, on the 40th anniversary of Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's.

In addition to the administration of the literary criticism award, the Writers' Workshop involvement with the trust includes the awarding of Truman Capote Fellowships to UI students in creative writing. Awards and scholarships were also established at Stanford University.

The establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust was stipulated in the author's will, and the Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects Capote's frequently expressed concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. The awards are designed to reward and encourage excellence in the field.

Newton Arvin, in whose memory the award was established, was one of the critics Capote admired. However, Arvin's academic career at Smith College was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed.

The UI and Stanford were selected to administer the awards and receive the scholarships because, Schwartz explained, they are "the two most important centers for creative writing."

by Winston Barclay