Skip to Content

College of Arts & Sciences
Department of English Language and Literature


Robert H. Elias Prize 2016-17 Is Awarded to English Department Doctoral Student Hannah Huber

Graduate student receives national recognition for her trailblazing study of Lily Bart, from Edith Wharton’s "The House of Mirth", as an example of the pathological restlessness caused by the late 19th-century American urban environment.

The English Department is proud to announce that Hannah Huber, third-year Ph.D. candidate in the program, has won the 2016-2017 Elias Essay Prize for her article “Illuminating Sleeplessness in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.” Huber’s specialization is in fin-de-siècle American literature with a focus on medical and sleep studies, psychoanalysis, and gender and sexuality studies.

Inspired by two courses Huber took with Professors Cynthia Davis and Cathrine Keyser in Spring and Fall 2016, “Illuminating Sleeplessness in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth” examines the pathological insomnia of Wharton’s protagonist Lily Bart and interprets it as the character’s “biological debt” to a society (the New York urban environment) that has entrapped her—an aging, orphan spinster—in a nightmare of increasing social and financial dependence. Huber explains that the core of her argument is “Lily’s adherence to the turn-of-the century’s ‘cult of wakefulness,’ an American ethos espoused by figures such as Thomas Edison, which resulted, in part, from the development of twenty-four-hour electric light.” Lily Bart’s ultimately fatal failure to overcome her body’s natural sleep rhythms helps Huber articulate an original critique of American urban society, which left no room for rest or regeneration for those at its margins“Studies of Naturalism often focus on the male experience and the masculine body,” Huber added: “So I am excited that my essay on a novel written by a woman and focusing on the female body has been granted a place within the studies of American Naturalism.”

The award carries a monetary prize and the publication of Huber’s essay in the journal Studies in American Naturalism.

Regarding this prestigious recognition, Huber said that the prize is especially important to her for two reasons: “First, it is exciting to know that the vision I have for my dissertation—as shown through my essay—has received a stamp of approval from such an esteemed journal. Second, I love Naturalism and was beyond thrilled to know that my first publication would be in contribution to its study.”

Lastly, Huber has also expressed her gratitude to the mentors in the English Department who helped her reach this important benchmark: “I would like to give big thanks to my ‘Dream Team’ committee members—Dr. Davis, Dr. Keyser and Dr. David Greven—for their guidance, insight and support.”

Sponsored by the International Theodore Dreiser Society, the Robert H. Elias Essay Prize, named for the former Cornell University professor and one of the first Dreiser scholars, is awarded annually to a graduate student or untenured faculty for unpublished writings devoted to the topic of Naturalism.