“Newman as Novelist” in Commonweal


My article on John Henry Newman as the first novelist saint is available online at Commonweal:


When John Henry Newman is canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, the nineteenth-century cardinal and theologian will become the first new English saint in almost fifty years. He will also become the first novelist to be elevated to sainthood.

Of course, it is far from unusual for a saint to have an interest outside of piety and devotion, but Newman has the distinction of being the only saint with two published novels to his credit. Newman lived a life devoted to Christ and to serving the church, and his example of devotion led to a Catholic revival in England. His philosophical and theological writings have also had a major influence on Catholic life in the post–Vatican II church. So what might it mean to encounter Newman through his novels, one of which is semi-autobiographical?

“The Thought of John Henry Newman,” Merton College, Oxford

Newman seminar Oxford 2019

Last month I had the privilege of attending a week-long seminar on “The Thought of John Henry Newman,” sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, led by Newman scholar Fr. Ian Ker, at Merton College, Oxford.

I am fascinated by the fact that, while the Transcendentalist movement was reforming religious life in New England, the Oxford, or Tractarian Movement was stirring controversy in Old England. These two parallel religious demonstrations–one liberal, one conservative–were led by two men who are in so many ways their equals and opposites: Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Henry Newman.

During our conversations about Newman, we discussed at length Newman’s sermons, theological works, and philosophical writings. I had the opportunity to present two papers, “Newman on Reason and its Relation to Faith” and “The Apologia as Autobiography.”

Our time at Oxford was spent retracing Newman’s steps through Oriel College, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and his retreat at Littlemore. I spent some time doing research at the Bodleian Library (the Newman section is on the second floor of the Radcliffe Camera, by the way.) I also got to visit with my dissertation committee co-chair, Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus Daniel Walker Howe.


“Song of Myself” reading at Whitmania


Whitmania creator and director Amber West (UCLA Writing Programs) and Mark Gallagher (UCLA English Department) stand beside the Good Grey Poet holding their copies of Whitman at the “Song of Myself” marathon reading at UCLA.

On Saturday, May 18th, 2019, UCLA kicked off its centennial celebration. It also marked the Whitman Bicentennial with a marathon reading of “Song of Myself.”

I was honored to be included in the program for this special event. Thank you to Whitmania organizers Amber West and Susannah Rodríguez Drissi for inviting me to participate.

The “Song of Myself” reading is one of a number of events planned for 2019 as part of UCLA’s Whitmania series and other events around the country celebrating the Walt Whitman Bicentennial.

“Building Writing Communities” at UCLA Writing Programs’ Creating Connections Symposium

On Friday, May 17, 2019, Writing Programs at UCLA held its second annual Creating Connections symposium on writing pedagogy. The event brings together UCLA faculty and graduate students to discuss teaching methods for writing instruction. It is organized by students in the Graduate Certificate in Writing Pedagogy in consultation with faculty and staff in UCLA Writing Programs.

As part of the symposium, I moderated a panel on the subject of “Building Writing Communities.” Muriel McClendon (UCLA History Department), Susannah Rodríguez Drissi (UCLA Writing Programs), and Reed Wilson (UCLA English Department and Writing Programs) shared their experiences with writing communities, ones that they have created and been a part of, speaking to the value that writing communities have for writers, students, and instructors. We discussed what makes a group of writers successful and how to build that sense of community that fosters creativity and productivity among our student writers and among our writing peers.

I offered the Transcendentalists as an example of a successful writing community. Their intellectual and cultural legacy—which includes the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, and those of many other, lesser-known writers—is a testament to how effective writing communities can be.

They are sometimes thought of as a group of self-reliant individualists who valued solitude over society, but the Transcendentalists were actually quite the opposite. They were a social group who supported each other’s writing in all possible ways. The “Transcendental Club” first came together in 1836 to discuss Ralph Waldo Emerson’s new book, Nature, and continued meeting in and around Boston on a regular basis for the next several years: conversing, discussing books, sharing their journals, writing each other letters and sharing letters, editing each other’s work, and publishing pamphlets, books, and a literary journal of their own. When the original group stopped meeting, Margaret Fuller started a series of “Conversations” which widened the circle of the movement to include more women and kept the movement going through the early 1840s. It is probably no accident that when the Transcendentalists ceased to function as an active writing community, their movement wound down as well but not without leaving its mark on the literary world.

“Sleepy Hollow in Concord” in NEQ

My article, “Sleepy Hollow in Concord: Melville’s Gothic Parody of Transcendentalist Spirit in ‘The Apple-Tree Table'” appears in the current issue of The New England Quarterly

From the NEQ site: “Inspired by Concord’s newly consecrated Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Herman Melville’s “The Apple-Tree Table; or, Original Spiritual Manifestations” (1856) undercuts spirituality with materiality in a gothic parody that is both a literal parody of the “Sleepy Hollow” genre and an ironic parody of both Thoreau and Hawthorne.” 

If you have not read ‘The Apple-Tree Table,’ I recommend that you do. There’s a lot of humor in it, but with a more playful and endearing quality that is not typically found in Melville’s short stories. Most readings of the story have been quick to label it a satire of Thoreau or spiritualism–and they wouldn’t be wrong. The question I ask is, why on earth is Melville writing a gothic parody? And what is with all the allusions to Concord? There’s also an egregious amount of references to “spirits” and trees–living and dead.

You can read the article here.

The Walden Project’s Thoreauvian Pedagogy

A few years ago I interviewed Matthew Schlein, founder and director of the Willowell Foundation about the Walden Project, an alternative education program for high school students based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Obviously I was interested in talking with Matt about his work because of our shared interest in Thoreau. But I also find it inspiring to see educators finding innovative ways to reach students.

What the experimental pedagogy of the Walden Project does is give students who are interested in the environment, literature, history, and just being outdoors a chance to study the things that they care about outside of a traditional classroom.

Personally, I think an overemphasis on STEM subjects and overuse of standardized testing is a misguided approach to secondary education. If we want to ensure a functioning democracy, if we want to promote civic values, if we want the next generation of Americans to learn how to think critically, then more must be done to give more autonomy back to teachers.


Little Women exhibit at UCLA

My exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women is currently on display at UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library.

“Not a Bit Sensational but Simple and True”: Little Women features materials from UCLA Library Special Collections as well as the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library and my own personal collection (which I share with my daughter, Catherine.)

The exhibit explores Alcott’s life and works, highlighting her commitment to women’s suffrage and “reforms of all kinds.” Also featured are some of the many women writers and leaders who have been inspired by Little Women and its rebellious protagonist, including Geraldine Brooks, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Susan Sontag.

little women jessie wilcox smith



Speaking at the 2018 SSAWW Conference

I recently spoke at the 2018 Society of American Women Writers (SSAWW) Triennial Conference in Denver, Colorado, where I presented part of a dissertation chapter that I am writing on nineteenth-century Transcendentalist reformer and writer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. I was also invited to participate in a roundtable on Louisa May Alcott and the public humanities, in which I spoke about an exhibit that I am curating for the UCLA Library celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women.

“The Aesthetic Vision of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody” was presented as part of the panel, “Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women Writers: New Readings.” My paper comes from my dissertation on “affective Transcendentalism” which reexamines Transcendentalism as both a religious and a literary movement within Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century. This includes reasserting what Phyllis Cole and Jana Argersinger have called the “female genealogy of Transcendentalism”—specifically the contributions of writers such as Peabody. My dissertation chapter on Peabody, a recovery of what I call her “aesthetic vision,” discusses how her idea of aesthetics shapes her own Transcendentalist view of history and social progress. Unlike the writings of Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, comparatively little had been said about Peabody’s writings despite her status as a major figure in the Transcendentalist movement. The most neglected of all of Peabody’s writings is perhaps her most provocative, most personal, and most imaginative, a piece simply titled “A Vision.” Most critics have dismissed this mystical mediation as vague and idiosyncratic. But what generations of Transcendentalist scholars have failed to see is her allusions to the work of Dante—an important literary model for both Fuller and Emerson, with whom Peabody engages in a dialogue that challenges their Transcendental ideas.

I also had the honor of being invited to speak as part of the Louisa May Alcott Society’s roundtable, “’Reforms of All Kinds’: Louisa May Alcott and the Public Humanities.” This was one of several highlighted sessions in the program and was chaired by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis and Daniel Shealy. For my part, I spoke about an exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of Little Women which I have organized for the UCLA Library. The exhibit features six display cases of original publications, historical documents, and other materials that tell us the story of Louisa May Alcott and her novel about the March Sisters. The exhibit’s themes include: Alcott and woman’s rights; Alcott and reform movements; Little Women’s cultural legacy; and the influence of Little Women, featuring some of the many women writers and leaders who have been inspired by the novel, such as Ursula K LeGuin, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ann Petry, Sonia Sanchez, and Patti Smith.

Little Women 150

Throughout 2018 and 2019, fans of Louisa May Alcott will be celebrating the Little Women sesquicentennial. To mark this event, the Louisa May Alcott Society is publishing a collection of short essays curated by Kansas State University’s Greg Eiselein and Anne Phillips, with each essay devoted to a single chapter of Little Women. My contribution is a reading of Chapter 11, “Experiments”:

“Louisa May Alcott was deeply affected by the Fruitlands experiment. While she eventually wrote a satirical history of it, her first published commentary on her father’s failed utopia appears in Chapter 11 of Little Women, “Experiments,” where the March sisters indulge in the “all play, and no work” lifestyle that led to Fruitlands’ failure and the near ruin of Alcott’s family.”

Read more here:


2018-2019 Barbara L. Packer Fellowship

I am honored to be the recipient of the 2018-2019 Barbara L. Packer Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The Packer Fellowship was established by the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society in honor of my late advisor Barbara Lee Packer (1947-2010).

During my residence at the American Antiquarian Society, I completed research on two chapters of my dissertation–one on Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and another on Theodore Parker. Archival research is particularly important for these two Transcendentalists because, compared to Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau, there has been relatively little written about them. Some of the specific materials I consulted included Peabody’s manuscript letters and her 33-page journal of Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations”; the correspondence, notebooks, and scrapbook of Theodore Parker; and the unpublished correspondence of Ellen Tucker Emerson. My project contextualizes my claims about Transcendental optimism and what I call their affective style within the cultures of sentiment and criticism in 1830s and 1840s. This meant consulting a range of materials in book history that the AAS offers, including nineteenth-century religious periodicals such as the Christian Examiner, Christian Register, and Scriptural Interpreter; Transcendentalist periodicals, such as Specimens of Foreign Literature and The Harbinger; moral instruction manuals; annuals and gift books. (I have more to say about my experience as this year’s Packer Fellowship recipient in a forthcoming issue of Emerson Society Papers.)

This past May, I met with other members of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, including Phyllis Cole, Roger Thompson, Michael C. Weisenburg, and Kristina West, at this year’s American Literature Association Conference where I received the award and a copy of Professor Packer’s The Transcendentalists.

For more information about the Barbara L. Packer Fellowship, visit the American Antiquarian Society’s site here.