Liberal Arts professor to receive distinguished award for his recent book

Kirsten Schlorff
December 06, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jonathan Eburne, professor of comparative literature, English, and French and Francophone studies in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, has received the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) 50th James Russell Lowell Prize for his latest book, “Outsider Theory: Intellectual Histories of Unorthodox Ideas” (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

First presented in 1969, the prize is one of 18 awards that will be presented on Jan. 11, 2020, during the association’s annual convention in Seattle, Washington. Named in honor of 19th-century American poet and scholar James Russell Lowell, who served as the MLA’s second president from 1887 until his death in 1891, this prize is awarded yearly for “an outstanding book — a literary or linguistic study, a critical edition of an important work, or a critical biography — written by a member of the association.”

The University of Minnesota Press describes “Outsider Theory” as “a timely book about outlandish ideas, taking readers on an adventure through intellectual history that stresses the urgency of taking seriously ideas that might otherwise be regarded as errant, unfashionable, or even unreasonable. It shows how crucial it is to know how and why such ideas have left their impression on modern-day thinking and continue to shape its evolution.”

Outsider Theory book cover

“Outsider Theory” is "a timely book about outlandish ideas, taking readers on an adventure through intellectual history that stresses the urgency of taking seriously ideas that might otherwise be regarded as errant, unfashionable, or even unreasonable." 

IMAGE: University of Minnesota Press

“Creating ‘Outsider Theory’ was a good 10-year journey,” said Eburne, who has been a member of MLA for more than 20 years. “I worked on it in many different stages though, because each chapter is an entirely new field.”

In a letter to Eburne announcing the prize, members of the MLA’s selection committee said they were impressed by the book’s fresh perspective on a wide range of movements, texts and ideas that fall outside traditional investigations of intellectual histories.

“Eburne’s attention to the ways errant, marginal and often hermetic ideas circulate forces us to question how we know what we know,” cited the committee. “The book brings together high and low cultures, often eclectic and esoteric, to explore how knowledge is produced and revised.”

The Modern Language Association of America and its more than 25,000 members in 100 countries work to strengthen the study and teaching of languages and literature. Founded in 1883, the MLA provides opportunities for its members to share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and to discuss trends.

Eburne, who joined the Penn State faculty in 2005, also serves as editor-in-chief and co-founder of the award-winning ASAP/Journal, the scholarly journal of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, and is editor of the “Refiguring Modernism” book series published by the Pennsylvania State University Press. ­

In addition to “Outsider Theory,” Eburne has authored “Surrealism and the Art of Crime” (Cornell University Press, 2008) and co-edited four other books: “Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde” (2017); “The Year’s Work in Nerds, Wonks, and Neocons” (2017); “The Year’s Work in the Oddball Archive” (2016); and “Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic” (2013).

When Eburne began writing “Outsider Theory” he said he thought he was making a total departure from his past work on Surrealism and the other experimental movements. However, he later realized that it was deeply related to his previous work, which in turn, revealed he had something to say about thinking and learning.

He said that one of the key challenges he faced while writing “Outsider Theory” was “figuring out how to say something meaningful about each of the complex topics discussed in the book, without pretending to be an authority.”

Eburne said being recognized by the MLA for the James Russell Lowell Prize has left him “utterly speechless.”

“This award showcases Jonathan’s ability to tackle complex ideas from surprising new angles, and to do so in a writing style that conveys a sense of thrill and curiosity,” said Charlotte Eubanks, head of the Department of Comparative Literature and associate professor of comparative literature, Japanese, and Asian studies. “He brings that to everything he does on campus — from his classroom teaching to his collaborations with students and faculty beyond the classroom — and it's just wonderful to see his work rewarded at such a high level. His book is a fascinating peek into the sorts of questions comparative literature can ask, about how the ideas we explore and stories we tell shape our world.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 09, 2019