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UTEP professor wins early American literature prize

Robert Gunn, an associate professor of English at UTEP, was awarded the Early American Literature Book Prize for 2016 for his book “Ethnology and Empire: Languages, Literature, and the Making of the North American Borderlands”.

“On a personal level it’s really exciting to find the recognition of my work by my peers in the field. The groups composed of scholars defined the work I put into the book, and they are people I admire tremendously. To have my book recognized with all the other tremendous books that have come out the recent years, and to have mine awarded is really exciting. I hope it brings more attention to what we do in the English department and UTEP, too,” Gunn said.

The book was published by NYU Press in 2015 and is the second part to the series, “America and the Long 19th Century.”

Gunn was born in El Paso before he moved to Oregon before the age of two. He made his way back when he joined UTEP as a professor in 2005. But before he traveled back to the Sun City, Gunn earned his Bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College and pursued his Master’s degree after at New York University in English and American Literature.

It took around eight years for his award-winning book to hit the shelves with all the time and research that went into the creation of the novel. All of the time spent in archives, old letters and documents with the constant traveling to gain all the knowledge from everywhere around the nation has finally payed off for Gunn.

Gunn’s move back to El Paso was one of the main reasons he went through with Ethnology and Empire, so his readers could recognize how important language and linguistics has shaped the world.

Taking place in the early nineteenth-century, the story focuses on the emergence of Native American linguistics and the culture before the U.S-Mexico transpired. It also speaks about the Great Lakes region and of the learned societies in New York and Philadelphia. Gunn argues that linguistics surfaced as the most influential dialogue, even today. Gunn talks about what his book consists of in greater detail.

“It tells the story about the rise of ethnological linguistics, which is anthropology in today’s world. The emergence of it and context of the westward expansion, and the topic of American literary culture in the first half of the 19th century up until U.S-Mexico war, and the boundary service that was established here, and how we live it every day here (El Paso) in the wake of that war. We’re developing how language works, how human difference operates and what race is to linguistics. If you want to compare languages you need to have samples of languages; you need to have someone to physically go out there and take down the lexicons and write down the native words from back then,” Gunn said. “The other half of the book is the indigenous communication networks, you know, the way the world looks from India countries. It includes the indigenous practices and languages that were carried out by people in the context of encounter and all these different stories as one.”

Ethnology and Empire is about the stories and the history that gave the rise to the formation of America, especially in the borderlands. In many ways, people are pragmatically and impacted by the border, that gives the expression of state power that runs through the middle of it. How the formation of the borders and where they fit into other stories of American history and Mexican history are vastly spoken on by Gunn.

“Our local stories here were very much the center of national conversation; it’s always been like that and what those debates and conversations looked like, what was at stake in the borderlands. In the early half of the 19th century, from the Louisiana Purchase through the U.S-Mexico war is fascinating stuff and the stories aren’t told enough,” Gunn said.

Another popular element in the book is Gunn’s focus on Plains Indians sign language, which is a fully developed linguistic system. It’s a language with grammar and was not classified as a language until the 1960’s by linguists. Even though there are over 13,000 different signs, people did not see it as a way of communication for the longest time.

“To discount and discredit as a civilized and linguistic system and language that was both of those things for over hundreds of years. So I spent a lot of my writing in the book on the that and recognition it didn’t get. The patterns of misrecognition by travelers, officers and linguists who are encountering native languages for the first time, encountering sign language for the first time, as they radically misread it for something else.” Gunn said.

With Ethnology and Empire reaching great height, Gunn is currently working on his next project, which is set to be named “Wages of Imperial Time”. It’s about literature and space in early North America. He is planning on the upcoming book to be about how local time keeping looked like prior to clocks, watches and any other sort of outlet that gave people the sense of time.

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UTEP professor wins early American literature prize