Selecting six distinctive 20th-century women for her book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (University of Chicago Press, 2017), UChicago scholar Deborah Nelson examines how each woman responded to suffering in unsentimental ways, and how their unconventional responses reflect their active, expansive, and transformative relationship to the traumas of the 20th century. For her broad look at how their toughness reshaped the cultural landscape, Nelson will receive the 2018 James Russell Lowell Prize from the Modern Language Association on January 5 in Chicago.
This distinguished annual prize recognizes an outstanding literary study, a critical edition of a significant book, or a major biography. Other criteria to be eligible include examining literary theory, media, cultural history, and interdisciplinary topics. More than 25,000 members of the MLA residing in 100 countries are eligible for the prize.
“Debbie’s Tough Enough is a highly accessible book that is reaching audiences both within and outside academia,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities at UChicago. “The breadth of its appeal is, in part, what the premiere prize of the MLA honors, and this breadth corresponds to Debbie’s far-reaching impact at the University of Chicago.”
After devoting a few decades to the study of late 20th-century literature, Nelson wanted her latest book to take a fresh look at histories from the period—much of which scholars are still uncovering—highlighting details that remain relevant to the understanding of current cultural history. She explores the longer history of the current obsession with empathy and argues that there is a tradition of writing that offered a different ethical model. To select these six women writers, intellectuals, and artists—Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Simone Weil—Nelson looked at the work of dozens of women to find those who argued passionately for the aesthetic, political, and moral obligations to face painful reality unsentimentally. The project originally began when she was researching an essay about the writer Elizabeth Hardwick.
“These women had unusually rigorous approaches to suffering. Style is important to suffering, and these women are affiliated more closely by style and shared sensibility than by other factors,” said Nelson, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor and chair of the Department of English Language and Literature. “I looked at what’s aggressive in their work. What are the limits? What’s costly in their work?”
Members of the MLA’s selection committee were impressed by Tough Enough’s response to these questions. “Nelson argues that this mode of facing reality—restrained, precise, even cold—reflects a powerful mode of being that offers a tough, concrete, analytic response to the traumas of the 20th century,” they wrote in statement regarding the award. “Nelson’s close attention to these women helps us see the unsentimental as a serious philosophical and political intervention for our time.”
In addition to the positive critical response, Tough Enough has engaged a wide popular audience, and is already being translated into Spanish, Turkish, Korean, and Chinese.
Nelson’s other writing include Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (Columbia University Press, 2001); articles published in PMLA, American Literary History, Contemporary Literature, and Feminist Studies; and several edited collections. Hired by the University of Chicago in 1996—the same year that she earned her PhD from the City University of New York—Nelson has frequent stimulating and probing conversations, which influence and sharpen her scholarship. Her interlocutors in the English department include two recent James Russell Lowell Prize recipients, W. J. T. Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor, and Professor Sianne Ngai.
Nelson is also a founding member of the research collective Post45, which refers to scholarship on the period following World War II; the group publishes an online journal; and has a book series with Stanford University Press. Her next project is an essay co-authored with James T. Sparrow, Associate Professor in History at UChicago, in a series called Trio. This book will feature three long essays on realism, and is scheduled to be published in 2020 by the University of Chicago Press.