By Amy Matzke-Fawcett

A professor in ODU's Department of English recently won a prestigious award for his writing and research about an 18th-century hymn.

Drew Lopenzina, professor of English literature, was awarded the Richard Beale Davis Prize by the Modern Language Association Forum on Early American Literature for his publication, "'In De Dark Wood: No Indian Nigh': William Apess and 'The Indian Hymn.'"

The award, which Lopenzina said he was "floored" to receive, is named for Davis, a native Virginian and renowned literary historian of the early South who won, among many other illustrious awards and recognitions, the National Book Award in 1979.

The Beale prize has long recognized scholars whose essays the Modern Language Association Forum deem the year's best, ODU English Professor Manuela Mourau said.

"As a winner, Dr. Lopenzina joins a distinguished roster of preeminent Early American scholars whose ambitious, innovative and important work continues to push the boundaries of their field," she said.

The essay focuses on a little-known 19th-century Methodist hymn, referred as the "The Indian Hymn, " which opens: "In de dark woods, no Indian high, Den me look Heb'n, and send up cry."

"The authorship of the hymn was most often attributed to William Apess, an ordained minister in the Methodist church and a member of the Pequot Tribe of Indians," Lopenzina said. "Apess was a tireless advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples during the first half of the 19th century, delivering fiery orations in churches, theaters, meeting houses and lecture halls throughout the Northeast. He is the first Native American to write and publish a book-length memoir, his 1829 "A Son of the Forest," and the hymn appeared at the conclusion of this book."

However, the idea that an advocate for Native people would write a hymn with derogatory imagery and their relationship with Christianity was puzzling to scholars, leading to Lopenzina's research and scholarship that ultimately won the Davis Prize.

"My research unveils the complicated history of this hymn, its actual authorship by a white Scottish immigrant from Nova Scotia, and how the hymn, far from being a favorite of Christian Natives as was often implied, was, in fact, cherished by white church-goers for whom it held a kind of minstrel-show appeal," he said. "By contrast, my essay demonstrates the actual, more dignified, practices adopted by New England Natives in their complex negotiations with the religion of the settler state."

The award, although dated 2020, was awarded in January 2022. The awards are given on a delay to give the awarding organization's judges time to read the many publications from the awarding year, Lopenzina said.

"I was very pleasantly surprised to receive this award, and I am grateful for the recognition from my peers," he said.

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