Russ Castronovo

Position title: Tom Paine Professor of English and Dorothy Draheim Professor of American Studies


7133 Helen C. White Hall

American literature, African American literature, American Studies, cultural theory and popular culture
Russ Castronovo

Degrees and Institutions

  • PhD, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • BA, University of California, Berkeley

Selected Publications

  • American Insecurity and the Origins of Vulnerability (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023).
  • Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications in Early America (New York, Oxford University Press, 2014);
  • Beautiful Democracy:  Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2007);
  • Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States(Durham: Duke University Press, 2001);
  • Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995);
  • Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, co-edited with Dana Nelson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002);
  • Aesthetics and the End(s) of American Cultural Studies: Special Issue of American Literature, co-edited with Chris Castiglia.
  • Plus articles in The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, ELN, Critical Inquiry, boundary 2, American Literary History, New Literary History, American Literature, PMLA on figures such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, Herman Melville, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.


I’ve published widely on American literature, paying special attention to critical flashpoints wrapped up with democracy, propaganda, citizenship, aesthetics, and surveillance. These interests have led me to write about topics ranging from Freedom’s Journal (the first Black newspaper in the US) to silent film, from the American Revolution to mesmerism, and from conservatism to anarchism. I also write for public audiences more broadly at outlets such as Public Books, Public Seminar, and various newspapers. My next project is short book on vulnerability for the “Literature and Politics” series at Oxford University Press.

Personal Statement

I am interested in the uses of literature in understanding politics. In my classes, this interest entails a commitment to active participation and dialogue, shared interpretation, and interdisciplinary pursuits of knowledge. In 2016, I received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award and the following year I was honored with the Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award, a recognition bestowed on just four faculty members each year across the twenty-six campuses of the University of Wisconsin system. 

Recent Books

  • Castronovo, Russ. American Insecurity and the Origins of Vulnerability. Princeton University Press, 2023. Print.

    For more than three centuries, Americans have pursued strategies of security that routinely make them feel vulnerable, unsafe, and insecure. American Insecurity and the Origins of Vulnerability probes this paradox by examining American attachments to the terror of the sublime, the fear of uncertainty, and the anxieties produced by unending racial threat.

    Challenging conventional approaches that leave questions of security to policy experts, Russ Castronovo turns to literature, philosophy, and political theory to show how security provides an organizing principle for collective life in ways that both enhance freedom and limit it. His incisive critique ranges from frontier violence and white racial anxiety to insurgent Black print culture and other forms of early American terror, uncovering the hidden logic of insecurity that structures modern approaches to national defense, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, surveillance, and privacy. Drawing on examples from fiction, journalism, tracts, and pamphlets, Castronovo uncovers the deep affective attachments that Americans have had since the founding to the sources of fear and insecurity that make them feel unsafe.

    Timely and urgent, American Insecurity and the Origins of Vulnerability sheds critical light on how and why the fundamental political desire for security promotes unease alongside assurance and fixates on risk and danger while clamoring for safety.

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  • Bow (Co-editor), Leslie, and Russ Castronovo (Co-editor). The Oxford Handbook of Twentieth-Century American Literature. Oxford University Press, 2022. Print.

    An essential and field-defining resource, this volume brings fresh approaches to major US novels, poetry, and performance literature of the twentieth century. With sections on ‘structures’, ‘movements’, ‘attachments’, and ‘imaginaries’, this handbook brings a new set of tools and perspectives to the rich and diverse traditions of American literary production. The editors have turned to leading as well as up-and-coming scholars in the field to foreground methodological concerns that assess the challenges of transnational perspectives, critical race and indigenous studies, disability and care studies, environmental criticism, affect studies, gender analysis, media and sound studies, and other cutting-edge approaches. The 20 original chapters include the discussion of working-class literature, border narratives, children’s literature, novels of late-capitalism, nuclear poetry, fantasies of whiteness, and Native American, African American, Asian American, and Latinx creative texts.

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  • Castronovo, Russ. Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications in Early America. Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

    This book considers the extent to which the dispersal and circulation—indeed, the propagation—of information and opinion across the various media of the eighteenth century helped speed the flow of transatlantic republicanism. Long a pejorative word since its associations with flag—waving and jingoism, propaganda would hardly seem a useful concept for understanding democracy. After all, spreading false information, manipulating citizens, and other propaganda techniques are preferred by totalitarian states, not democratic ones. This book questions such conventional wisdom by examining how the formation of popular consent and public opinion in early America relied on the spirited dissemination of rumor, forgery, and invective. Instead of pinning meaning to Enlightenment rationality or national consensus, propaganda infused print culture with the ferment of transatlantic republicanism to widen political discourse beyond either the strictly empirical or official public opinion. The spread of Revolutionary material in the form of newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, letters, songs, and poems across British North America created multiple networks that spawned new and often radical ideas about political communication. These networks also encompassed the Caribbean and France after 1789, which became flash points for reflecting on the changing meanings of the American Revolution. Across the Atlantic of the late eighteenth century, communication itself became revolutionary in ways that revealed circulation to be propaganda’s most vital content. By examining the kinetic aspects of print culture, the book shows how the mobility of letters, pamphlets, and other text amounts to political activity par excellence.

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  • Castronovo (Co-editor), Russ. The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies. Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

    This handbook includes 23 essays by leading scholars from a variety of disciplines, divided into three sections: (1) Histories and Nationalities, (2) Institutions and Practices, and (3) Theories and Methodologies. In addition to dealing with the thorny question of definition, the handbook takes up an expansive set of assumptions and a full range of approaches that move propaganda beyond political campaigns and warfare to examine a wide array of cultural contexts and practices.

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  • The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature cover
    Castronovo (Editor), Russ.“The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature.” 2012: n. pag. Print.

    How do we approach the rich field of nineteenth-century American literature? How might we recalibrate the coordinates of critical vision and open up new areas of investigation? To answer such questions, this volume brings together 23 original essays written by leading scholars in American literary studies. By examining specific novels, poems, essays, diaries and other literary examples, the authors confront head-on the implications, scope, and scale of their analysis. The chapters foreground methodological concerns to assess the challenges of transnational perspectives, disability studies, environmental criticism, affect studies, gender analysis, and other cutting-edge approaches. The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature is thus both critically incisive and sharply practical, inviting attention to how readers read,how critics critique, and how interpreters interpret. It offers forceful strategies for rethinking protest novels, women’s writing, urban literature, slave narratives, and popular fiction, just to name a few of the wide array of topics and genres covered. This volume, rather than surveying established ideas in studies of nineteenth-century American literature, registers what is happening now and anticipates what will shape the field’s future.

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  • Castronovo (Co-editor), Russ. States of Emergency The Object of American Studies. University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Print.

    The contributors to this volume argue that for too long, inclusiveness has substituted for methodology in American studies scholarship. The ten original essays collected here call for a robust comparativism that is attuned theoretically to questions of both space and time.

    States of Emergency asks readers to engage in a thought experiment: imagine that you have an object you want to study. Which methodologies will contextualize and explain your selection? What political goals are embedded in your inquiry? This thought experiment is taken up by contributors who consider an array of objects–the weather, cigarettes, archival material, AIDS, the enemy, extinct species, and torture. The essayists recalibrate the metrics of time and space usually used to measure these questions. In the process, each contributes to a project that redefines the object of American studies, reading its history as well as its future across, against, even outside the established grain of interdisciplinary practice.

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  • Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era cover
    Castronovo, Russ.“Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era.” 2007: n. pag. Print.

    The photographer and reformer Jacob Riis once wrote, “I have seen an armful of daisies keep the peace of a block better than a policeman and his club.” Riis was not alone in his belief that beauty could tame urban chaos, but are aesthetic experiences always a social good? Could aesthetics also inspire violent crime, working-class unrest, and racial murder? To answer these questions, Russ Castronovo turns to those who debated claims that art could democratize culture–civic reformers, anarchists, novelists, civil rights activists, and college professors – to reveal that beauty provides unexpected occasions for radical, even revolutionary, political thinking.

    Beautiful Democracy explores the intersection of beauty and violence by examining university lectures and course materials on aesthetics from a century ago along with riots, acts of domestic terrorism, magic lantern exhibitions, and other public spectacles. Philosophical aesthetics, realist novels, urban photography, and black periodicals, Castronovo argues, inspired and instigated all sorts of collective social endeavors, from the progressive nature of tenement reform to the horrors of lynching. Discussing Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlie Chaplin, William Dean Howells, and Riis as aesthetic theorists in the company of Kant and Schiller, Beautiful Democracy ultimately suggests that the distance separating academic thinking and popular wisdom about social transformation is narrower than we generally suppose.

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  • Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics cover
    Castronovo (Editor), Russ, and Dana Nelson (Editor).“Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics.” 2002: n. pag. Print.

    For the most part, democracy is simply presumed to exist in the United States. It is viewed as a completed project rather than as a goal to be achieved. Fifteen leading scholars challenge that stasis in Materializing Democracy. They aim to reinvigorate the idea of democracy by placing it in the midst of a contentious political and cultural fray, which, the volume’s editors argue, is exactly where it belongs. Drawing on literary criticism, cultural studies, history, legal studies, and political theory, the essays collected here highlight competing definitions and practices of democracy—in politics, society, and, indeed, academia.

    Covering topics ranging from rights discourse to Native American performance, from identity politics to gay marriage, and from rituals of public mourning to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the contributors seek to understand the practices, ideas, and material conditions that enable or foreclose democracy’s possibilities. Through readings of subjects as diverse as Will Rogers, Alexis de Tocqueville, slave narratives, interactions along the Texas-Mexico border, and liberal arts education, the contributors also explore ways of making democracy available for analysis. Materializing Democracy suggests that attention to disparate narratives is integral to the development of more complex, vibrant versions of democracy.

    Contributors: Lauren Berlant, Wendy Brown, Chris Castiglia, Russ Castronovo, Joan Dayan, Wai Chee Dimock, Lisa Duggan, Richard R. Flores, Kevin Gaines, Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, Michael Moon, Dana D. Nelson, Christopher Newfield, Donald E. Pease

    Russ Castronovo is the Jean Wall Bennett Professor of English and American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States, published by Duke University Press. Dana D. Nelson is Professor of English and Social Theory at the University of Kentucky and author of National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men, also published by Duke University Press.

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  • Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States cover

    In Necro Citizenship Russ Castronovo argues that the meaning of citizenship in the United States during the nineteenth century was bound to – and even dependent on – death. Deploying an impressive range of literary and cultural texts, Castronovo interrogates an American public sphere that fetishized death as a crucial point of political identification. This morbid politics idealized disembodiment over embodiment, spiritual conditions over material ones, amnesia over history, and passivity over engagement.

    Moving from medical engravings, séances, and clairvoyant communication to Supreme Court decisions, popular literature, and physiological tracts, Necro Citizenship explores how rituals of inclusion and belonging have generated alienation and dispossession. Castronovo contends that citizenship does violence to bodies, especially those of blacks, women, and workers. “Necro ideology,” he argues, supplied citizens with the means to think about slavery, economic powerlessness, or social injustice as eternal questions, beyond the scope of politics or critique. By obsessing on sleepwalkers, drowned women, and other corpses, necro ideology fostered a collective demand for an abstract even antidemocratic sense of freedom. Examining issues involving the occult, white sexuality, ghosts, and suicide in conjunction with readings of Harriet Jacobs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Frances Harper, Necro Citizenship successfully demonstrates why Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” has resonated so strongly in the American imagination. Those working in the fields of American studies, literature, history, and political theory will be interested in the social revelations and cultural connections found in Necro Citizenship.

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  • Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom cover
    Castronovo, Russ.“Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom.” 1995: n. pag. Print.

    Fathering the Nation examines competing expressions of national memory appearing in a wide range of mid-nineteenth-century artifacts, including slave autobiography, classic American fiction, monumental architechture, myths of the Revolution, proslavery writing, and landscape painting. While these images, icons, and fictions attempt to present an ordered, inspiring narrative of America, they also tell other stories that disrupt the nation. Arguing that even the most rigid representations, such as the Bunker Hill Monument and official legends of the founding fathers, are incoherent, Castronovo presents a geneology that recovers those members of the national family whose status challenges the body politic and its history. The forgotten orphans in Melville’s Moby Dick and Israel Potter, the rebellious slaves in the work of Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, the citizens afflicted with amnesia in Lincoln’s speeches, and the dispossessed sons in slave narratives all provide dissenting voices that provoke insurrectionary plots and counter-memories. Viewed here as a “miscegenation” of stories, the narrative of “America” resists being told in terms of an intelligible story of uncontested descent. National identity rests not on rituals of consensus but on repressed legacies of parricide and rebellion.

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