Dame Gillian Beer receives 2017 Truman Capote Award

Gillian Beer

Gillian Beer

October 11, 2017 - 12:00am

The Truman Capote Award Ceremony will take place at 4 p.m. Oct. 19 in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. The event will feature a reading by Claire Fox and a champagne reception in the Old Capitol Museum. Both events are open to the public.


Dame Gillian Beer won the 2017 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin for her book, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll, published by University of Chicago Press. Beer is a renowned literary critic and  emeritus professor and honorary fellow of Clare Hall and Girton Colleges at the University of Cambridge.

The Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism is administered by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

“I was especially delighted to receive this prize in the company of people I admire, such as Susan Stewart, Malcolm Bowie, and my friend and one-time PhD student, Helen Small,” says Beer. “This particular book has been a long pleasure to write and I am so glad that people have been enjoying it.”

Traditionally, the Truman Capote award recipient travels to Iowa City to receive the award and deliver remarks. Beer, 82, will not be traveling from her home in England to attend this year’s ceremony, which takes place in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber at the UI at 4 p.m. Oct. 19.

Instead Claire Fox, professor and chair of the English department, will read a brief essay by Beer, Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, and World War I. In addition, three other speakers will read brief passages of Truman Capote’s work, after which the Old Capitol Museum will host a reception. Both events are open to the public.

The $30,000 award—the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism—is administered for the Truman Capote Estate by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The book was chosen for the award by an international panel of prominent critics and writers—Terry Castle, Garrett Stewart, Michael Wood, John Kerrigan, Elaine Scarry, and Joyce Carol Oates—each of whom nominated two texts. Books of general literary criticism in English published during the last four years are eligible for nomination. After reading all the nominated books, each critic ranked the nominees. 

Alice in Space is Beer’s long-awaited exploration of the ideas, science, and culture percolating in 19th century England, which served as the backdrop for Lewis Carroll’s famous work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Eve Patten, writing for the organization British Council Literature, describes Beer’s scholarship as “groundbreaking in its cross-disciplinary pursuits.” She explains that Beer’s research concerns the historical and cultural contexts of the English novel, and specifically, the relationship between literary narrative and modern scientific thought.

“The hard thing about interdisciplinary work is competence,” says Beer, “how to reach a level of knowledge in other fields that will allow you to bring a new way of looking at connections between different disciplines. The pleasure is discovering the sheer scope of the worlds around you and how they interact. You have to be bold and scrupulous at once, not always an easy combination!”

In a review for Times Higher Education, Shelley King writes, “Reading Alice in Space is like participating in a marvelous dinner party conversation as the author moves freely and easily among the intricate interrelationships of Victorian culture.”

Beer enrolled at St. Anne’s College in Oxford, England in 1954 and studied English literature. She taught for Girton College at the University of Cambridge for 30 years before becoming president of Clare Hall, Cambridge’s graduate college. She served as the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature from 1994 until her retirement in 2002.

Now retired, Beer cares for her husband, who suffers from a chronic illness, and enjoys the company of her granddaughters, ages 4 and 2. She serves as general editor for the series Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture.

Looking back on her decades of scholarship and instruction in the field of literary criticism, Beer notes the changes that have occurred.

“It is now much more involved with difficult social issues and the books studied are much more diverse,” she says. “That makes it an important resource in understanding and analyzing the worlds we live in. Some of the methods of study have remained constant, such as close attention to what is written, hinted, laid bare, and concealed within a text, and how that may shift with a different readership.”

The Truman Capote Estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust in 1994 during a breakfast at Tiffany’s in New York City on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In addition to the administration of the literary criticism award, the Writers’ Workshop’s involvement with the trust includes awarding Truman Capote creative writing fellowships to UI students.

Newton Arvin, in whose memory the award was established, was one of the critics Capote admired. However, Arvin’s academic career at Smith College was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed.

The creation of the Truman Capote Literary Trust was stipulated in the author’s will, and the Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects Capote’s frequently expressed concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. The awards are designed to reward and encourage excellence in the field. 

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a graduate program in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Graduate College.


P.N. Furbank, Open University

Helen Vendler, Harvard University

John Felstiner, Stanford University

John Kerrigan, Cambridge University

Charles Rosen, University of Chicago

Elaine Scarry and Philip Fisher, Harvard University

Malcolm Bowie, Oxford University

Declan Kiberd, University College, Dublin

Seamus Heaney, Irish Nobel laureate

Susan Stewart, Princeton University

Angus Fletcher, City University of New York Graduate School

Geoffrey Hartman, Yale University

William Gass, Washington University in St. Louis

Helen Small, Pembroke College, Oxford University

Geoffrey Hill, Boston University

Seth Lerer, University of California at San Diego

Mark McGurl, University of California at Los Angeles

Elaine Showalter, Princeton University

Marina Warner, New York University Abu Dhabi

Fredric Jameson, Duke University

Stanley Plumly, University of Maryland.

Kevin Birmingham, Harvard College Writing Program