Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award of 1924 Event Recap

In Events, Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award, News

The Hundred Year Retroactive Book Award of 1924 debated the enduring merits of three bestsellers 

The Associates of the Boston Public Library held our annual Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award, on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, at the Boston Public Library (BPL).  At this annual literary event, the enduring merits of three bestsellers from a hundred years ago were debated. We saw "W.E.B. Du Bois, Herman Melville, and E.M. Forster go head-to-head," as mentioned by The Boston Globe. We welcomed back Boston radio host Kennedy Elsey as our emcee for the third time in a row, and we saw professors Paul B. Armstrong, Richard Deming, and Paula C. Austin  defend A Passage to India, Billy Budd, and The Gift of Black Folk respectively.  


The event was incredibly successful with a turnout of approximately 125 in-person and 80 virtual audience members. The night began with an introduction from the Associates' Board Member and Chair of the Hundred-Year Retroactive Committee, Lisa Fagin Davis who recognized notable attendees including Priscilla Douglas, author and BPL Trustees Chair, and Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award Committee Members, Peter Drummey, Chief Historian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, author Joe Finder, and Anita Lincoln.  

 

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This was followed by an introduction by our emcee, DJ Radio Host, Kennedy Elsey. 

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Kennedy Elsey introduced the debate, and shed light on the socio-cultural environment of 1924, using photographs from the Boston Public Library's Leslie Jones Collection. She then introduced Paul B. Armstrong, a Professor of English Emeritus at Brown University, editor of the Norton Critical Edition of  A Passage to India, an author of several books on modern fiction, literary theory, and neuroaesthetics. Paul gave an impassioned speech about E. M. Forster's novel, giving a background on the author, the reception of the book by critics, and how the narrative challenges the reader to "become ironic of our own epistemological limitations." 

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Next, Kennedy introduced Professor Richard Deming, a poet, critic, and essayist, author, and Director of Creative Writing at Yale University. Richard set the tone of his presentation with his opening joke, "the organizers said to keep it light, something humorous, so let me tell you about the execution of an innocent man." Richard recounted Melville's career, from early success to struggles with works like Moby Dick, emphasized the tragic nature of Billy Bud's plot, and analyzed the complexity of moral duty, justice, and ethics presented in the novel. 

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Last, but not least, Kennedy introduced Paula C. Austin, a U.S. historian with a focus on the history of race and racism, urban and women’s history, history of social science, and the history of childhood. Paula is currently the Associate Professor of History and African American & Black Diaspora Studies and Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University. Her book, Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life is a social and intellectual history of poor and working class young Black people. She is currently working on a history of police violence and police reform in Washington, DC.  

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Paula started by contextualizing W.E.B. Du Bois's The Gift of Black Folk within the tumultuous events of 1924. She went on to emphasize Du Bois's exploration of Black contributions to American society, particularly in areas such as exploration, labor, and reconstruction. Austin then acknowledged some ideological and rhetorical flaws including Du Bois's treatment of religion and women's issues. However, she underscored Du Bois's overarching goal of highlighting Black agency in shaping democracy and societal progress.

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Kennedy reminded everyone to vote for the best book of 1924 while the audience asked the presenters thoughtful questions.

Want to find out who won? Check out the full event recording on our YouTube page below!

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This event would not have been possible without the wonderful members of the Associates' Hundred-Year Committee, Lisa Fagin Davis (Chair), Alan Andres, Peter Drummey, Joe Finder, Anita C. Lincoln, and Linda Weld.

Want to vote for which three books should be presented next year? Sign up for our mailing list.

All photos were taken by Z Weber.

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