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Irish studies and English professor wins René Wellek Prize for ‘Languages of the Night’

Author: Arts and Letters

barry_mccrea_300 Barry McCrea

Barry McCrea, the Donald R. Keough Family Professor of Irish Studies and a professor of English, Irish language and literature, and Romance languages and literatures, has been awarded the René Wellek Prize by the American Comparative Literature Association for the best book in the past year in comparative literature.

McCrea’s Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe (Yale University Press, 2015) explores how the decline of rural languages and dialects in 20th-century Europe shaped ideas about language and literature and exerted a powerful influence on literary modernism.

The Wellek Prize is generally considered to be the most prestigious award in the field of literary studies. Past winners of the award include Umberto Eco and Edward Said. It is the first time that a book about Irish themes has won the prize.

“My discipline is comparative literature, and so I’ve known about this prize for a long time. I’ve read the books that win it, and I admire hugely the people who have won it. But, I genuinely never expected to win it myself,” McCrea said. “Receiving this prize means an awful lot to me, of course, but I’m also so happy for the Irish language. That small, embattled languages like Irish have this light shone on their world from the mainstream of literary study in the world—that is very gratifying.”

In announcing the prize at its annual meeting at Harvard University last week, the awards committee offered high praise for McCrea.

“This meticulously researched book, rendered in a haunting, lyrical style, juxtaposes a set of cases in which vanishing vernaculars inspired the linguistic strategies of literary modernism in the early 20th century. On the basis of linguistic exegesis and close readings, Barry McCrea uncovers the longings of lost language inscribed in the poetry and prose of modernists," the committe wrote. "In so doing, he illuminates the literary afterlife of languages that were disappearing at the peripheries of modern urban cultures, and for the first time, places them in comparative historical and cultural perspective.

“McCrea’s study eschews linguistic-anthropological analyses or language politics that might distinguish between the rise of highbrow literature in Irish (as language revival) and the selective use of non-standard language. … Instead he demonstrates, brilliantly, that these phenomena were motivated by a shared impulse to find beauty in vanishing vernaculars. An affirmation of the passion and moment of the local in the metropolitan, this comparatively slim volume will have large consequences for future research in comparative literature. It is beautifully written, imaginatively conceived, and methodologically a tour de force.”

McCrea, a faculty fellow at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, is the author of The First Verse, a novel, which won the 2006 Ferro-Grumley Prize for fiction; In the Company of Strangers: Narrative and Family in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce and Proust; and Minor Languages and the Modern Literary Imagination.

He spent time researching at the Notre Dame Global Gateways in Dublin and Rome and said the support he received from the University was essential to completing the book.

“One of the reasons I came to Notre Dame is that I am able to work on three campuses—the one here in Indiana, one in Rome, and one in Dublin. And without that, I could not have written this book,” he said. “I admire the way the university is attuned to other places and languages in the world, and the way Notre Dame is very invested in having a real intellectual presence, not only in Ireland and Italy, but just in the world in general. That’s one of the many, many reasons it is the right place for me.”