English professor Laura Dassow Walls wins 2018 Phi Beta Kappa book award

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Laura Dassow Walls, the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, has won the 2018 Christian Gauss Award from Phi Beta Kappa for her biography, "Henry David Thoreau: A Life."

The prize, which recognizes outstanding books of literary scholarship, will be presented at a reception in Washington, D.C., in December.

“This is a magisterially sympathetic reading of Thoreau’s life as a writer,” said one member of the prize’s selection panel. “Walls’ clear, probing voice lives up to Thoreau’s.”

Established in 1776, the Phi Beta Kappa Society is the nation’s most exclusive and prestigious academic honor society. It has chapters at 286 colleges and universities in the U.S. and more than half a million members worldwide — including 17 U.S. presidents, 40 U.S. Supreme Court justices and more than 140 Nobel laureates.

“This award is particularly meaningful, as I have been a member of PBK since I graduated from college, from a proud family who could say the same,” Walls said. “For many years, I have admired and benefited from their high aspirations for the best humanistic scholarship across the arts and sciences.”

This is the latest in a series of honors for Wall’s critically acclaimed biography, which has seen tremendous success. Most recently, it won the 2017 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography.  

"Thoreau: A Life" was published on July 12, 2017, to coincide with Thoreau’s 200th birthday — and sold out even before its official publication date. The first comprehensive biography of Thoreau since 1965, it has been praised in reviews by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others, for its nuanced portrayal of its subject and its compelling narrative.

“I’m fascinated by the interface between the factual world and the way our imaginations take up that world and create a meaningful narrative,” Walls said. “I’ve always worked on the boundary between literature and science, and I find that boundary becomes even more exciting if you walk that line as an act of artistic creation.

“Writing this book, I’m sure, has changed me forever.”

Walls, a scholar of American transcendentalism, environmental literature and the intersection of science and literature, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010 to begin work on the book. She was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2015 to complete the project.

For an extended interview with Walls, listen to the With a Side of Knowledge podcast produced by the Office of the Provost.

Originally published by Carrie Gates at al.nd.edu on Oct. 4.