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Exploring Heart of Darkness Brings Student a National Prize


Erica Ivins ’21 first read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in a high school AP class, and it became her favorite book, capturing her interest as a piece of literature within a specific history. She carried that interest with her to Hamilton, where her research into the novel earned a prestigious prize in the undergraduate essay contest of the North American Conference On British Studies 2020.

Kevin Grant, the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History, nominated Ivins for the prize and was her advisor on a summer research project that resulted in the essay. An Emerson grant from Hamilton gave her the opportunity to plumb her ideas about the novel.

“In 23 years at the College, I’ve never known anyone to win this national prize,” Grant said. “This is the largest British studies association in the world. Erica was up against competition from every school you can name: kids from Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Williams, Swarthmore, everywhere. And it is intense competition.”

To research the project, Ivins traveled (pre-pandemic) to England for two weeks to pore over Conrad’s letters at The British Library and Oxford University. Later she did the same at Yale.

“It is a very difficult process to get into these prestigious institutions to conduct archival research as an undergraduate. And it felt especially amazing because I went from reading Joseph Conrad’s book to sitting in a library in England with his handwritten letters in front of me,” Ivins said. “It was crazy. But it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

The novelty of Ivins’ interpretation of the book distinguished her essay. She saw the novella as about Russia rather than the Congo, where the story is set, which Grant called an immensely creative reading that he’d never seen before.

Beyond her interpretation of the book as a commentary on Russia, Ivins addressed broader questions of Conrad’s understanding of humanitarian politics and how to mobilize support for humanitarian causes, Grant explained. The essay’s title: “The Fact and Fiction of Joseph Conrad’s Humanitarian Politics.”

Ivins, a history and archaeology double major, is looking at lots of post-Hamilton options, including grad school and, eventually, law school.

“I’d really like to pursue a career in international human rights law, indigenous law, or civil rights law  — anything that specifically works with defending human rights is really what I’m interested in,” Ivins said. “And I honestly think that this project with Professor Grant made me realize how current-day human rights and social justice issues are very, very related and rooted in colonialism, which made drastic inequalities and oppressive systems that continue to have legacies today.”

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