Underdown Prize


The David Underdown Memorial Prize has been awarded annually by the NECBS since 2010 for the best paper read at the conference by a graduate student. The prize award consists of $350 and a citation read at the subsequent meeting of the organization and posted on this website (see below).

The Prize is named in honor of the important, long-term, active member of the NECBS, David Underdown (1925-2009) in recognition of his service to the profession. Trained at Oxford, and a professor of early modern British history at various institutions, including the University of the South (1953-62), the University of Virginia (1962-68), Brown University (1968-86), and finally Yale University (1986-96), David Underdown was one of the most prominent and influential historians of seventeenth-century Britain in his generation. In many books and articles, including Royalist Conspiracies in England (1960), Pride’s Purge (1971), Somerset in the Civil War and Interregnum (1973), Revel, Riot, and Rebellion (1985), Fire from Heaven (1992), A Freeborn People (1996), and Start of Play (2000), he pioneered a new social history of politics, stressed the importance of ideology in the making of the English revolution, and deftly wove together a number of complex tapestries of local politics in their broader, national context. Committed to teaching, David Underdown mentored, trained and inspired several generations of American graduate students, many of whom he encouraged to present their work over the years at the annual meetings of the Northeast Conference on British Studies.

Submission Notes

All students currently enrolled in graduate programs who read papers at the annual meeting and have not yet received their Ph.D. are eligible to submit their conference paper for consideration for the David Underdown Memorial Prize. Papers should be submitted substantially as read at the meeting in content and length (with only minor corrections permitted) and must include footnotes or endnotes. Papers are ordinarily submitted electronically to the President of the NECBS no later than two weeks after the end of the annual conference. The 2016 deadline will be Monday, October 31, 2016. Please send your paper to Paul Deslandes [pdesland@uvm.edu]. A prize committee consisting of (or appointed by) the officers of the NECBS will judge the papers submitted and award the annual Prize.

David Underdown Prize Recipients

Official Commendations

2016, Andrew Kettler (University of South Carolina), “`The Devil’s Element:’ Cultural Constructions of Metaphorical Brimstone and Sulfuric Instrumentality in Early Modern England,” presented on the panel “Body, Spirit, and Metaphor in Early Modern England” at the 2016 meeting of the NECBS, held at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. Kettler’s fascinating paper examines the ways in which early modern understandings of sulfuric odors shifted over the course of the period by carefully examining a range of sources including literary texts, scientific treatises, and religious tracts. While sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century conceptions tended to associate the smell of sulfur with evil (a sensory indication of the devil’s presence on earth), by the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries new meanings were attached to the substance’s smell as natural philosophers, alchemists, physicians, and state officials began to employ it in novel ways. As Kettler perceptively notes, sulfur’s growing presence in urban environments as a medicine, a cleanser, and an important component in gunpowder, meant that English people were, by the late-seventeenth century, ascribing to it a new sort of cultural meaning that reflected not only the growth of more secular worldviews but also an increasing familiarity with scientific discourses and ideas. Like all good historians, Kettler is careful to note the complexities of the shift he uncovers. Even as the popular meanings of sulfur changed, he observes, sulfuric smells as metaphors for evil persisted in literary works. Kettler’s work is an important intervention in cultural history, pointing to the ways in which the exploration of both sensory experiences and meanings can yield exciting results in seeking to understand the early modern world.

2015, Seth LeJacq (Johns Hopkins University), “Between Decks: Sodomy, Masculinity, and Abuse of Authority in the Nelsonian Royal Navy,” presented on the panel “Gender, Sexuality, and Reputation in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” at the 2015 meeting of the NECBS, held at the University of Ottawa. LeJacq’s insightful essay explores the trials of men court-martialed for having sex with other men in the Royal Navy during the years between the start of the French Revolution and the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Combining statistical analysis with deep and close readings of individual cases, LeJacq illustrates both the potential for homoerotic contact in the British navy and the circumstances that produced, in some instances, the close scrutiny and prosecution of those acts. In so doing, he carefully reveals how concerns about same-sex behavior were frequently subject to careful regulation, and therefore formally defined as sodomy, only at those times when they were perceived to be either egregiously disordering or generally reflective of broad abuses of power. As LeJacq notes, cases that elicited the particular concern of prosecutors in this period were those involving acts between higher-status and lower-status and older and younger men. Occurring at a time when the Royal Navy was especially active internationally but also when new definitions of class, sexuality, and gender were beginning to emerge, relations of this sort were seen to challenge the hierarchies of shipboard relations and undermine the morally-inspired, paternalistic, and polite masculine authority that became increasingly central to the naval officer’s exercise of power in this period. Historiographically-informed, extremely well-researched, and provocative, LeJacq’s work shows great promise and reflects the growing sophistication of new histories of sexuality in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain.

2014, J’Nese Williams (Vanderbilt University), “The Texture of Empire: Colonial Botanic Gardens in India in the Nineteenth Century,” presented on the panel “Commodities, the Natural Word, and Power in Britain and the Empire,” at the 2014 meeting of the NECBS, held at Bates College in Maine. The prize committee commends Ms. Williams for her sophisticated, thoughtful case study of (agri)cultural imperialism at work. Her paper examines Indian botanical gardens and agricultural societies in the years before the rise of formal agricultural departments and imperial plant policy coordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, beginning with the creation of the Calcutta Garden in 1787 under the auspices of the East India Company. It argues that the centralizing, formal developments of the 1860s constituted not so much new policy but new strategies for achieving long-standing aims: profit, famine relief, and demonstrations of ‘good governance’ of a sort intended to conciliate and co-opt Indian landowners. Both the East India Company and the presidency governments had promoted local agricultural societies to pursue their interests. The crises of the 1860s manifested the failures of this early public-private hybrid network of gardens and societies, however, with improvement too often subordinated to profit. In a commendably well researched and written paper, Williams contributes to our understandings of empire and environment.

2013, Lucy Sheehan (Columbia University), “Intimate Productions: Slavery and Industrialism in Frances Trollope’s Fiction,” presented on the panel, “Negotiating the Nation in the Nineteenth Century” at the 2013 meeting of the NECBS, held at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The prize committee commends Ms. Sheehan for her insightful and elegantly written analysis of two novels by Frances Trollope: The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw; or Scenes on the Mississippi (1836) and The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840). In exploring these complicated narratives intertextually, Sheehan brilliantly employs the insights of literary critics and historians alike to illustrate the links between slavery and industrial capitalism as intimate acts of real (in the instance of the Caribbean plantation) and metaphorical (in the instance of factories) maternal reproduction. In so doing, Sheehan highlights how Trollope entwined, in her fiction, the birth of slave children and the productive capacities of the well-regulated machine, illustrating in new and intriguing ways the links between these two economic systems. These links also entailed, for Sheehan, a form of corporeal commodification in which laboring bodies, be they those of slaves or factory hands, became consumable objects. Sheehan thus reminds us that cultural explorations of the history of industrialism generally and the novels of social realists more specifically require that we think across both national and imperial boundaries.

2012, Tim Rogan (University of Cambridge), “Shifting Conceptions of Self and Society in the Formation of the Anglo-American New Left,” presented on the panel, “A Common Language? Cross-Currents in Anglo-American Intellectual Exchange c. 1930 – c. 1970,” at the 2012 joint meeting of the NACBS/NECBS, held in Montreal, Canada. The prize committee commends Mr. Rogan for his nuanced and passionate account of the intellectual links forged during the 1950s between the American sociologist, C.Wright Mills and key members of the British New Left, notably E.P. Thompson and Stuart Hall. Though these men had their differences, especially over the role of the working class, Rogan shows that they coalesced strongly around Mills’ conception of the public intellectual. This formulation promised to give intellectual work new vitality and prestige by linking it to other forms of organic creativity and craftsmanship; especially for the British it also seemed to offer a way to heal the breach between intellectuals and the Labor Movement. Rogan shows how central the idea of the public intellectual was to the New Left in its early years, while usefully differentiating New Left intellectuals’ approach to self and society from that of an older generation of leftists. Though Rogan focuses on a fleeting phase in the evolution of the New Left he convinces us that it is a crucial one for understanding this enormously influential movement.

2011, Desmond Fitz-Gibbon, co-recipient (University of California, Berkeley),
“Auctioneers, Estate Agents and the Culture of the Property Market in Nineteenth-Century England,” presented on the panel, “Class and the Evolving Market Economy in the Nineteenth Century,” at the 2011 meeting of the NECBS, held at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. The prize committee commends Mr Fitz-Gibbon for a beautifully written essay that poses a series of imaginative and incisive questions about a rather mundane subject – the mechanics of home-buying in Victorian England. Moving beyond a mere “history of the professions,” in this case those of auctioneers and estate agents, Fitz-Gibbon creatively gets to the heart of those status concerns and anxieties that seethed just beneath the surface of Victorian middle-class domesticity.

2011, Padraic Scanlan, co-recipient (Princeton University),“‘The Seeds of Reformation’: Colonialism in Sierra Leone after the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1808-1815,” presented on the panel, “Trading Companies and Empire, 1670-1930,” at the 2011 meeting of the NECBS, held at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. The prize committee commends Mr Scanlan for delving deeply into a rich and under-utilized source base in order to tell a compelling story of the slow and ambivalent ways in which slavery was abolished in and around the colony of Sierra Leone, replaced by only slightly less coercive systems of labor exploitation. Sophisticated and thought-provoking, attuned to the debates and issues in the existing scholarship, Scanlan’s essay skillfully shows just how difficult it was for recently “liberated” people to be viewed in anything other than commodified terms.

2010, Eve Colpus (Oxford University, New College), “‘The Week’s Good Cause’: Philanthropy and the British Broadcasting Corporation, c. 1922-1939,” presented on the panel “Mass Culture and the Market: The Media in Interwar Britain,” at the 2010 meeting of the NECBS, held at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The Prize committee commends Ms. Colpus for a paper that was engaging and imaginative, elegantly written, deeply researched, and keenly attentive to the nuances of historical change. By situating the interwar philanthropic practices of the BBC in an expansive historical context, the paper ranged broadly and insightfully across various domains in order to make sense of a new, yet old cultural practice. The result was an essay that exuded a multidimensional richness as it moved effortlessly back and forth amongst the history of philanthropy, the mass media, the state, consumption, and celebrity culture.