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Finished on a smartphone, history professor's essay is now up for a prestigious international prize

The Vues des ports de France (Scenes of the harbours of France) is a series of paintings by French painter Joseph Vernet, made between 1754 and 1765, that are featured in William Nelson's essay.

History Professor William Nelson has become the first U of T Scarborough faculty member to be longlisted for the prestigious Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize, worth £20,000 ($33,000 CDN) and the most valuable in the world.

Nelson’s innovative 4,700-word essay, “Five Ways of Being a Painting," combines text and images to examine “the ways that people have used paintings to think about the experience of estrangement,” he says. In it, he weaves anecdotes and musings about historical figures and images from the past 400 years in Europe and China as well as memories from his own childhood. He wrote part of the essay on his smartphone.

Notting Hill Editions, a website and publisher aiming to “reinvigorate the art of the essay”, was founded by games inventor and entrepreneur Tom Kremer, who helped popularize Rubik’s Cube. The shortlist for the Essay Prize will be announced on May 3 and the winner and five runners-up on June 28.

The biennial competition was first held in 2013, when it was won by U of T’s Michael Ignatieff, then a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs. In 2015, U of T philosophy Professor Mark Kingwell was longlisted and received special mention, making 2017 the third time in a row that a U of T professor has been in the running for the prize.

Nelson, whose piece is one of 76 on the longlist, says he has published a number of academic works but never a literary essay. Most of the other authors on the list, he notes, are professional writers.

“When I was doing my PhD, I realized I wanted to pay a lot more attention to writing,” he says. “So I practiced writing in a number of different styles.”

Nelson, who grew up outside Washington, D.C., did his PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, then did post-docs and visiting professorships at the University of Cambridge, the University of Miami and the University of Texas at Austin. A specialist in 18th-century intellectual history, he came to UTSC’s Department of Historical and Cultural Studies in 2011.

He began writing the essay about three years ago, then put it aside to work on a book. Last year, seeing the Essay Prize deadline coming up, he completed the essay in fragments in bed at night, typing on his smartphone.

“I wrote the essay in an experimental form that weaves together five storylines exploring the ways that people can ‘be’ paintings,” he says, adding: “I am an academic historian of ideas. This is another type of exploration of ideas.” 

© University of Toronto Scarborough