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Release: April 5, 2000

Harvard critics Elaine Scarry and Philip Fisher share 2000 Capote Award at UI

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Literary critics Elaine Scarry and Philip Fisher, faculty members at Harvard University, will share the 2000 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin, the largest annual cash prize for literary criticism in the English language, administered for the Truman Capote Estate by the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The $50,000 prize will be awarded in a free, public ceremony at 5 p.m. Monday, April 17 in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol on the UI campus. Fisher will be honored for his book "Still the New World," and Scarry will be honored for "Dreaming By the Book." The event will include brief addresses by both writers.

The books were selected for the Capote Award by an international panel of prominent critics and writers -- Peter Sacks, Stephen Greenblatt, K. 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 winners were determined by a tally of the votes. This is the first year in which the Capote Award judging has produced a tie.

The panelists’ choices were 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.

"Dreaming by the Book" was published in 1999 by Farrar Strauss & Giroux. Scarry’s other books include "The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World," "On Beauty and Being Just," "Literature and the Body," "Memory, Brain and Belief" and "Resisting Representation."

In "Dreaming By the Book" Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, addresses the slippery question of how poems and stories make us perceive what they describe. Wendy Lesser, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the book "a willfully, maddeningly, inventively, surprisingly, exhaustingly kooky book. . . . Scarry’s mind is well worth grappling with."

Fisher is the Felice Crowl Reid Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard. His other books include "Wonder, The Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences," and "Making and Effacing Art: Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums."

"Still the New World" was published in 1999 by the Harvard University Press, which describes the book as "a provocative new way of accounting for the spirit of literary tradition," that "makes a persuasive argument against the reduction of literature to identity questions of race, gender, and ethnicity."

Critic George Kateb described "Still the New World" as "A bold and original interpretation of what is distinctively American in the realm of culture. Fisher’s emphasis on ‘creative destruction’ as the source of America’s continuous strangeness and freshness is greatly rewarding. He lights up whole areas of cultural inquiry in a marvelously succinct way."

The Truman Capote Estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust in 1994, during a breakfast at Tiffany’s restaurant in New York City, on the 40th anniversary of the publication 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.

Past winners of the Capote Award have been British scholar P.N. Fairbank, Helen Vender of Harvard University, John Felstiner of Stanford University, John Kerrigan of Cambridge University, and pianist/scholar Charles Rosen of the University of Chicago.

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.

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 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 writing alumni have won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes, have been honored with virtually every other major American literary award, and count among their number many of America’s most popular and critically acclaimed writers. The latest accomplishments by UI writing alumni: within the last month John Irving won the Academy Award for the screen adaptation of his novel "The Cider House Rules," and workshop faculty member Marvin Bell was appointed as Iowa’s first Poet Laureate.