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W&L's Edward Adams Awarded Perkins Prize

Edward Adams, professor of English at Washington and Lee University, has been awarded the 2013 Barbara Perkins and George Perkins Award by the International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN). The Perkins Prize, given for the best book published in the previous year, was awarded to Adams for “Liberal Epic: The Victorian Practice of History from Gibbon to Churchill” (University of Virginia Press, 2011).

Adams was named the winner at the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference in Boston in January, and the prize will be presented at the annual Narrative Conference in June in the United Kingdom.

Suzanne Keen, interim dean of the college at W&L, is a past president of ISSN and has served on a Perkins Prize committee. “I can attest to the extraordinary achievement this honor represents,” she said. “The committee considers books on narrative from a wide array of fields, searching for that one publication that makes the most significant contribution to the study of narrative from all such books published in the prior year. The fruit of many years’ labor, Edward Adams’ ‘Liberal Epic’ was recognized by the committee as not just impressive, but magisterial.”

A reviewer called Adams’ book an extraordinary scholarly achievement and “a very substantial and original piece of work, which makes a striking contribution to the history of epic in the modern world and extends the significance of its topic in ambitious ways.”

In addition to drawing attention to a great tradition of epic histories, which were once widely-acclaimed and very popular but have been largely ignored by scholars, Adams’ book uses the evidence of these texts to advance several interrelated theses. Among the most important is one that argues against a very influential thesis that was first proposed in the 1970s.

The English military historian John Keegan wrote the war history “The Face of Battle,” which transformed the way warfare was depicted by military historians. “Keegan’s thesis, although it does fit some of the texts he wrote about, is a wonderful example, in my opinion, of an argument that is very plausible but then turns out to be exactly wrong,” said Adams.

Keegan’s claim is that writing and depictions of warfare in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries avoided describing the graphic reality of what happens on the battlefield because military historians and writers about war history were ignorant of the reality of battle. They hadn’t experienced it for themselves. Also, they had a natural human squeamishness and didn’t want to show what actually happens to a human body in battle.

In “Liberal Epic,” Adams demonstrates that the great historians such as Edward Gibbon, Thomas Babington Macaulay and Winston Churchill do not fit Keegan’s thesis. Adams contends that these writers didn’t depict the full horror of what was happening in battle because they had a deep-seated conviction that direct graphic accounts of battle would cultivate human sadism. They were deliberately trying to break the connection between the reader and the killer on the battlefield. So instead of being a consequence of human squeamishness, they softened accounts of warfare because they didn’t want readers to identify sadistically with killers but to feel sympathy for the victims of battle.

Readers of Homer, on the other hand, were expected to identify with the heroic killer on the battlefield and take pleasure in doing so, according to Adams.

Adams had originally planned to include film and video games but decided that would make the book too long. He does refer to these other media in the book’s introduction, describing first-person shooter video games as putting a premium on having the player identify as a killer and taking pleasure in the graphic details.

“One of the dangers of the depiction of warfare in a lot of contemporary writing is that people think they are being more honest by showing what is actually happening. But the problem isn’t that people will be turned off by warfare if you show them the truth, but that they will be turned on by it,” he said.

Receiving the Perkins Award will bring “Liberal Epic” to the attention of a wider audience. “So far the audience has been mostly students and scholars of English literature, but if military historians start paying attention to this book it really has a powerful argument that is grounded in evidence,” he said.

“It was a real surprise and pleasure to win the Perkins Award,” he added. “I was happy enough just to be nominated because it’s an honor to know that leading scholars will be reading my book as part of the nomination and award process.”

Adams acknowledged that Washington and Lee “was very supportive of me over the years in giving me the time to write the book. This included two sabbaticals and several Lenfest Grants.”

Adams received his B.A. in classics from Amherst College, his M.A. in classics from the University of California, Berkeley and his Ph.D. in English from Yale University.

“Liberal Epic: The Victorian Practice of History from Gibbon to Churchill” is available at the University Store or find it on their website at http://bookstore.wlu.edu

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