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Kerrigan's "Revenge Tragedy" wins Capote Award, the largest prize for literary criticism

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- "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 University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, the $50,000 award is the world's largest annual cash prize for literary criticism.

Kerrigan will receive the award in a ceremony at 3 p.m. Thursday, April 30 in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol on the UI campus in Iowa City. The event, which will include an address by Kerrigan, is free and open to the public. The award will be presented to Kerrigan by Alan Schwartz, co-trustee of the Capote Literary Trust. The event will also feature remarks by UI President Mary Sue Coleman. Houston Diehl of the UI English department will introduce 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, are eligible for nomination. After reading all the nominated books, each critic ranked the nominees, and the winner was determined by a tally of the votes.

The panelists' choice was reviewed and confirmed by the award's administrative committee: Frank Conroy, director of the UI 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 has 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? I welcomed the opportunity to deal with narratives and characters (such as Orestes, Medea and Hamlet) which seem to have a life beyond particular historical circumstances and bring ancient culture into a dialogue with modernity."

"Revenge Tragedy" has won praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Terry Eagleton wrote in London's Times Literary Supplement that the book is "an astonishingly learned, versatile study, which sweeps from Orestes to Bernard Williams, Euripides to Andrea Dworkin, medieval romance to the modern media, television and film. . . . This 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. . . . It is all rather dazzling . . . 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." Among the breakfast guests were John Updike, George Plimpton, Mary Tyler Moore, Patricia Neal, Dominick Dunne, Geoffrey Holder and Richard Avedon.

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."

The first of the university-based creative writing programs that have collectively transformed the terrain of American literary life, the UI Writers' Workshop has nurtured poets and fiction writers for more than 60 years. UI alumni have won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes, have been honored with virtually every other American literary award, and count among their number many of America's most popular and critically acclaimed writers.