Category Archives: Essay Prize

Essay Prizes: Call for Submissions

The executive committee seeks nominations or self-nominations for two annual GSNA Essay Prizes that honor the best essays on Goethe, his times, and/or contemporary figures, published in the year 2016. Each prize carries an award of $500.

In addition, the Society is pleased to consider articles for its Richard Sussman Essay Prize for the best essay published in 2016 on Goethe’s contributions to the sciences and on Goethe in the history of science.

Please submit a copy of the essay (electronic version preferred) by April 15, 2017 to the Society’s Vice-President, Catriona MacLeod: Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures, University of Pennsylvania, 745 Williams Hall, 255 South 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305 (cmacleod@sas.upenn.edu).

The following articles are eligible:

  1. articles written by a North American scholar (defined by institutional affiliation at the time of publication); or
  2. articles written by a current member of the GSNA; or
  3. articles published in the Goethe Yearbook.

NB: Articles by current GSNA board members are not eligible. GSNA members are encouraged to submit their own articles for consideration.

2015 Essay Prizes

This year we were in the fortunate position to be able to award two prizes for the Goethe Society Prize for the best essay on Goethe or the Goethezeit published in 2015. (Find previous award winners here.)

Our first of two prizes goes to Stephanie Hilger for her original and fascinating article “Orientation and Supplementation: Locating the ‘Hermaphrodite’ in the Encyclopédie,” published in Volume 22 of the Goethe Yearbook (2015). In her essay, she looks closely at entries on the hermaphrodite in various editions of the Encyclopèdie, ou Dictionnaire rasionné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72). Hilger deftly situates her analysis of attempts to represent the hermaphrodite within the contemporary discussion of queer phenomenology, that is, positionality and orientation. In an elegant, bold and convincing manner, Hilger highlights the tortured project of defining and representing the hermaphrodite, a figure that, according to Enlightenment thought, should not really exist. Hilger masterfully lays out the placement and optics of various entries on the hermaphrodite, revealing the seemingly competing tendencies of referencing mythical representations of hermaphrodites and representing ambiguously gendered anatomies in accord with the 18th-century scientific turn. In light of her nuanced readings of Enlightenment attempts to fix and understand the intersex body, Hilger concludes that the “Encyclopedic Age – what Foucault calls the Classical Age – is classical also in the sense that it reveals its anchoring in those Western foundational myths that it purports to transcend” (183). For those of us interested in encylopedism and the organization of knowledge as well, we will find here intriguing observations concerning the hybrid/ hermaphroditic form of the encyclopedia itself. Hilger’s essay provides a compelling intervention into scholarly discussions of the hermaphrodite that usually focus on this figure in the 19th– and 20th centuries, offering a window onto this figure’s pivotal place within shifting paradigms for understanding the human body, sex and gender.

The second winner of this year’s GSNA prize for best essay will not come as a surprise to most of us who have been reading new work in Goethe studies these past years, indeed decades. The prize goes to Heather Sullivan for her essay, “Nature and the ‘Dark Pastoral’ in Goethe’s Werther,” also published in the Goethe Yearbook 22. Heather has been at the forefront of employing ideas from “ecocriticism” and demonstrating the mutual benefits of reading Goethe through its lens. Far from a rote “application” of a method, however, she simultaneously thinks with Goethe’s own conceptions of nature. Most important in this essay, as in many of her others, she looks not just at Goethe’s theoretical pronouncements on science but on his literary production. She takes Timothy Morton’s statement seriously that in writing and thinking about ecology, the form matters as much as the content. In this essay in particular, she concentrates on what she terms “dark pastoral” in Goethe’s Werther—a term she coins after Morton’s “dark ecology.” This focus allows her to bring out the deep ambivalences in Goethe’s conception of nature (echoed in the varieties of natural descriptions). Furthermore, her reading challenges the typical subjectivist approach to the novel and to nature in the novel (as a mere reflection of poor Werther’s states of mind). Precisely her fusion of theory, science, and literature makes her essay stand out.

gsna-essay-prize-winner-heather-i-sullivan-with-vice-president-catriona-macleod
Heather I. Sullivan and Catriona MacLeod

We also decided to award an honorable mention to an exceptional paper by Jacob Denz, “Rigorous Mediacy: Addressing Mother in Hölderlin’s ‘Am Quell der Donau,’ ‘Die Wanderung,’ and ‘An die Madonna,’” which appeared in MLN.

Denz convincingly interprets the womb, via analyses of this figure in Kant and Hegel, as a synecdoche for the maternal, ultimately a synecdoche itself for a notion of organic totality that presents a crisis for Hölderlin. Denz’s sophisticated and highly original close readings of the Hölderlin poems are each a tour-de-force, offering a model for the kind of sustained close work with literature that yields profound insights into the creative and reading processes alike. Denz situates nuanced close analysis within a discussion of some of the pressing philosophical questions of the time in a manner that provides a riveting and utterly enlightening reading experience.

We are extremely fortunate to have a new prize this year, the Richard Sussman Prize for scholarship on Goethe or the Goethezeit more generally and science.

Howard M. Pollack-Milgate’s highly innovative essay “Gott ist bald 1 ∙ ∞ – bald 1/∞ – bald 0”: The Mathematical Infinite and the Absolute in Novalis” appeared in the journal Seminar in February 2015. In lucid prose, Pollack-Milgate offers an elegant exegesis of Novalis’ understanding of the infinite. Novalis’s concept of Potenzierung is daunting.  This essay is a tour de force of sorts, for it makes a clear and compelling case to scholars of Romanticism and lay readers alike for a reconceptualization of Romantic notions of the infinite in terms of an emerging science of calculus. Pollack-Milgate shows us that Novalis studied early texts on calculus and that he then borrowed the language and thought presented by mathematicians to conceive of the infinite in a dual manner, as the meeting, so to speak, of the curve and the line, of the differential and the integral. Pollack-Milgate deftly connects mathematical and philosophical conceptions of the infinite to poetic ones, showing us that “the infinite allows for contradictions to be resolved (as in the meeting point of parallel lines or asymptotes)” (68). As complex as this topic sounds, Pollack-Milgate’s masterful presentation of it manages easily to convince that calculus serves as an illuminating allegory for Romantic notions of the infinite.

gsna-with-howard-pollack-milgate-and-catriona-macleod
Howard Pollack-Milgate and Catriona MacLeod

Thanks to the special section of the Goethe Yearbook 22 on “Goethe and Environmentalism” there were numerous excellent essays on Goethe and science and so we are happy to offer, in addition to the inaugural Sussmann Prize, an honorable mention to Fred Amrine for his essay, “The Music of the Organism: Uexküll, Merleau-Ponty, Zuckerkandl, and Deleuze as Goethean Ecologists in Search of a New Paradigm.” Amrine brings together a wonderful range of 20th-century thinkers—the subtitle of his talk is quite a mouthful!—in order to demonstrate the way they have been exploring and “normalizing” a “paradigm shift” (à la Thomas Kuhn) that Goethe helped to initiate. All of them offer a different, non-mechanistic, non-binaristic approach to nature. In this essay, as in so much of his other work that likewise deserves honorable mention, Fred has made a powerful case for the Aktualität of Goethe. We could say that Goethe planted the seeds that have blossomed in so many later thinkers, or that Goethe played the theme that has undergone many wonderful variations. Indeed, that latter metaphor is particularly apt in this case because the specific way Fred ties these thinkers together is through their use of music as a way of talking about natural phenomena.

Catriona MacLeod
University of Pennsylvania

2013 Essay Prize

The Goethe Society awarded the 2013 best essay prize to Patricia Anne Simpson for her article, “Sacred Maternity and Secular Sons: Hölderlin’s Madonna as Muse.” I join my colleague Gail Hart and Peter Höyng in congratulating her for her superb scholarship. Patricia Simpson is Professor of German at Montana State University and her essay appeared in the Camden House anthology, Religion, Reason, and Culture in the Age of Goethe, which she edited along with Elizabeth Krimmer.

Patricia Simpson’s essay moves from broadest imaginable intellectual history to a very close reading of an exemplary poem. Her opening paragraph follows the fine German academic tradition of synthesizing as many ideas as possible in one very complex statement, in other words, it shows off just how smart the author is. She situates her argument within eighteenth-century debates over philosophy and theology, the place of the divine in secular modernity, as well the as the importance of pantheism, polytheism, and paganism within poetry. In its broad sweep, the essay reasserts the prominence of religion in our understanding of German intellectual history. She surveys the shifting boundaries between religion and philosophy from Spinoza to Habermas, without becoming so lost in abstraction that she ignores the real life consequences heterodox thinkers faced when they offend the reigning institutions. After a forceful overview, Professor SImpson then winnows her argument down from the accusations of atheism Fichte faced to a tightly focused reading of Hölderlin’s neglected fragmentary ode, “An die Madonna.” Simpson demonstrates how Hölderlin attention to maternity, religion and poetic epiphany stood dramatically apart from that of his contemporaries.

In choosing Professor Simpson’s work in a year rich with North American Goethezeit scholarship, the committee characterized it as “a beautiful reading of Hölderlin’s poetry, explaining the murky dynamics of the Madonna figure and its references to gendered parents with great clarity while disrupting the very basic assumptions about modernity and secularism.” In the end we all agreed that it was “thoroughly researched, broad in scope, shedding new light on Hölderlin, with a sophisticated argument, all the while elegantly presented. Ein kleines Meisterwerk.”

Daniel Purdy
Pennsylvania State University

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2012 Essay Prize

terhorstCongratulations to Eleanor ter Horst on her award-winning article, “Masks and Metamorphoses: The Transformation of Classical Tradition in Goethe’s Römische Elegien,” German Quarterly 85.4 (2012): 401-19.

Professor Horst (Clarion University) has written a learned and spirited essay which expertly draws links between Goethe’s Römische Elegien, and the French Renaissance poet Joachim de Bellay, Horace’s Odes, Ovid’s Erotic Arts, and Aeschylus’s Oresteia, among other Classical fore bearers. Professor Horst elucidates the dialogue between these many poets to contemplate the lifespan of erotic poetry when compared to the decayed monumentality of Roman antiquity. Without ever overtly referencing “dialectical logic,” the essay’s argument shifts gently back and forth, balancing between Goethe’s sensitive appropriation of Latin poetry and his Modernist sense of distance from the ancient world.

As Goethe scholars, we are always challenged by our more contemporary colleagues to explain what possible new topics one can find in the old man’s work. The answer lies not in extracting some sliver of a previously unnoticed insight, but to synthesize the already well-established and well-read commentary on Goethe, in order to combine it with new theoretical questions in a style that makes the eighteenth century come to life in our own present. Professor Horst has done just that.

She traces the scholarly and poetic discussion of the elegy as a genre. Her argument follows Goethe’s self-reflection on the division between the public and private. She is particularly attuned to the poem’s representation of intimacy in the media age of hyper sensationalism and the best seller. Professor Horst argues with speed and grace. Her learned article displays her thorough research into two centuries of commentary on the Römische Elegien without ever falling into a ponderous pace. Her style remains light and nimble, even at its most canonical moments of explication. She structures her argument along a rapidly shifting succession of oppositions, constantly substituting one familiar contrast for a surprising juxtaposition: north-south, ancient-modern, barbaric-civilized, always with an eye to the sexual resonance of each. In a surprising turn, Professor Horst explains the cross-gender, castrating connotations of the word “Gallier.” Even Luther’s Biblical German makes an unexpected appearance in her discussion of Goethe’s mythic sexual politics. The allusions in Professor Horst’s essay are so rich and so deftly intertwined, they leave the reader exhausted and in wonder at her writerly dexterity and editorial skill in composing such a finely crafted essay.