“Theme Time: Dylan as DJ,” in New Approaches to Bob Dylan, ed. Anne-Marie Mai (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2020), 189–205
Bob Dylan’s significant three-year stint as the host of Theme Time Radio Hour (2006–2009) has been largely overlooked by fans and critics. But Dylan’s role as DJ should be understood as central, rather than peripheral, to his career. Manning the helm of a radio show was no mere side act; DJ Dylan is the flipside of the live performer, the vocal aura on stage. The hundred episodes of Theme Time provide an opportunity to witness Bob Dylan not as a voice but as an ear, poised in the act of reverent listening. Far more than a simple playlist of influential tracks, Theme Time is an impressively curated archive that reshapes the contours of meaning for Dylan’s artistry. Taking seriously Dylan’s role as DJ reconfigures his position as a node in a larger musical network.
“The Limits of Recovery: The Failure of James Gates Percival,” Early American Literature 55.1 (2020): 111–144
In the 1820s, James Gates Percival was the foremost poet in the United States. But by the time he died in 1856, his verses had all but vanished, and he was known primarily as a failure. This essay examines Percival’s strangely precipitous decline from celebrity to obscurity in order to reinvestigate the critical paradigms shaping our expectations for early nineteenth-century American poetry. Following the meager reception of his work up to the present day, it considers the limits and prospects of current recovery scholarship for writers like Percival. The sudden availability of historical texts through large-scale digitization projects changes the very concept of recovery and allows for a different mode of appreciation that takes a more comprehensive view of its subjects. Percival may be seen as more than simply the author of some once-praised poems.
“Topographical Reports of the American Frontier,” Chapter 8 of The Microgenre: A Quick Look at Small Culture, ed. Molly C. O’Donnell and Anne H. Stevens (Bloomsbury, 2020), 61–70
In 1845, John C. Frémont delivered to Congress an account of his expedition to Oregon, and it was given a print-run of 10,000 copies—an unheard-of amount, at that time, for a government report. Since it was a public document, it was not under copyright, and independent publishers quickly put out their own editions. It became one of the most popular books of the decade, and it influenced famous American writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to Walt Whitman and Willa Cather. Following the success of Frémont’s text, a whole host of such government-sponsored topographical reports on the Western frontier became bestsellers. These documents were issued from the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, and while the authors were not professional writers, they nevertheless caught the Romantic spirit of the times. These figures—such as William Emory, James Simpson, Joseph Ives, George Kendall, James Abert, John Russell Bartlett, Clarence King, and John Wesley Powell—reflected upon the sound of howling wolves, the taste of spicy chili, the smell of chaparral and sagebrush, and the appearance of petroglyphs, tarantulas, mirages, and ancient adobe ruins. This microgenre flourished from 1845, when Frémont’s report was first published, to about 1879, when the dry, scientific U.S. Geological Survey largely took over exploratory work in the West. But for a few decades in the middle of the nineteenth-century, government reports became popular, bestselling adventure tales.
“The American Mad Max: The Road Warrior versus the Postman,” Science Fiction Film and Television 10.3 (October 2017): 307–327
Beginning with the incredible success of The Road Warrior, the Mad Max franchise became a foundational US post-apocalyptic fantasy. That film’s rusted wasteland aesthetics and heroic lone-wolf ethos proved enormously influential, affecting the very possibilities for imagining such future scenarios. This article examines Mad Max’s impact by looking to a post-apocalyptic alternative in The Postman (both David Brin’s novel and Kevin Costner’s screen adaptation). Despite their Australian origins, the Mad Max films have now been long established as iconic American expressions. But The Postman’s awkward, community-driven, patriotic vibe establishes the fulfilling future that George Miller initially sought – yet failed – to create. The harrowing narrative of The Postman both competes with and complements Mad Max’s nightmare world, offering a significantly different account of post-apocalyptic mayhem and renewal.
“Thoreau’s Sound Reasoning,” Nineteenth-Century Prose (Special Issue: “Thoreau Bicentennial Essays,” ed. Richard J. Schneider) 44.2 (Fall 2017): 135–154
This essay examines Thoreau’s theorization of sound and self via his attitude toward music. Thoreau has often been characterized as a careful listener who remained curiously dismissive of Romantic composers such as Beethoven. But how could someone so aesthetically perceptive fail to find any value in concert music? The essay tackles this question first by addressing New England’s general hospitality to the musical arts in the antebellum decades, revealing what opportunities for listening a person like Thoreau have had. It then analyzes Thoreau’s own comments about music and sonic phenomena to highlight a profound investment in the relationship between self and echo in Thoreau’s work—an investment that anticipates the attitudes of modern Continental philosophers.
“Jack London’s Sci-Fi Finale,” Chapter 22 of The Oxford Handbook of Jack London, ed. Jay Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 355–372
Jack London is often pigeonholed as a literary naturalist, but his interests aligned with a science fiction tradition. Over the course of his career, London increasingly set his narratives in the ancient past and the distant future. These fictional temporal environments provided him with new vantage points with which to explore the political relationship between individualism and nationalism, an exploration that intensified in his later work. His little-known 1912 novella The Scarlet Plague, one of the earliest examples of postapocalyptic fiction, re-imagined the western frontier in a new age. Its combination of a doomed heroic individual and a struggling Darwinian population set the tone for American postapocalyptic tales to come. An examination of this novella in its historical and compositional context reveals it to be a significant step forward in London’s literary development.
“Broken Hearths: Melville’s Israel Potter and the Bunker Hill Monument,” New England Quarterly 89.2 (June 2016): 192–221
When he dedicated Israel Potter (1855) to the Bunker Hill Monument, Herman Melville gestured to an eminent national memorial which took so long to build that it appeared to be in ruins before it was finished. Melville’s novel addresses the temporal quirks of both patriotic communal commemoration and posthumous personal recognition.
“A Poet of the Land: William Cullen Bryant’s Moundbuilder Ecology,” ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture 61.3 (Summer 2015): 475–511 [winner of the 2016 SLSA Schachterle Essay Prize]
By paying attention to the evolution of the poet’s career in its later years, I explain how Bryant gradually moved from escapist notions of an eternal Nature to a historicized view of the natural environment. Noting Bryant’s impressive ecological awareness for his time, I employ Ursula Heise’s concept of “eco-cosmopolitanism” to describe Bryant’s comparative examination of landscapes in foreign countries and his concerns about deforestation. I identify “The Prairies” as a turning point in Bryant’s career, particularly for its revelation of how seemingly pristine environments have nevertheless been shaped by human activity—in this case, by the mythological Moundbuilders who received much attention in antebellum America.
“Plotting Devices: Literary Darwinism in the Laboratory,” Philosophy and Literature (Special Issue: “Evolutionary Aesthetics”) 38.1A (October 2014): A148–A161
Critics of literary Darwinism like to point out the weaknesses of its scientific scaffolding, but the real flaw in this research program is its neglect of literary history and stylistic evolution. A full-fledged scientific approach to literary criticism should incorporate the kind of work being done by Franco Moretti at the Stanford Literary Lab—a quantitative analysis of the history of literary form. While Moretti and the literary Darwinists are almost never mentioned together, I contend that their work is not only compatible but also necessarily so for a more consilient literary criticism. The Darwinian aesthetics promoted by Denis Dutton can help to unite these two approaches.
“Narratives of Extinction: James Fenimore Cooper and the Last Man,” Literature in the Early American Republic 6 (2014): 245–268
“Narratives of Extinction” reads James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” (1826) as a “Last Man” tale informed by the contemporaneously emerging discourse of biological extinction. British writers of the era envisioned the natural extinction of the human race and developed a literary vogue for Last Man stories, epitomized by Mary Shelley’s novel “The Last Man” (1826). In Shelley’s hands, “lastness” ended only in ambiguity and interminable mediation. Asking, “Who is the last of the Mohicans?” this essay argues that Cooper used the unstable figure of the Last Man to allow white readers to establish narrative continuity with the country’s Native American history.