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

  • 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 (forthcoming).
  • 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’m in the final stages of completing a book entitled Insecure: Security and Terror before 9/11. Along the way, I’ve published some work on the aesthetics of security [“Security and the Informational Sublime,” REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature], privacy and surveillance [“James Fenimore Cooper and the NSA: Security, Property, Liberalism,” American Literary History 28 (Winter 2016)], and floods of information [“Information Warfare and Slow Media: Loyalist Failures During the American Revolution,” American Literature 89.4 (December 2017)]. In other sections I look at early African American print culture in order to examine some of the origins of white nationalism.

Along with my previous books, Insecure shows how my engagement with issues of aesthetics, democracy, terror, race, sexuality, and death.

Personal Statement

I am interested in the uses of literature in forming critical citizenship. In my classes, this interest entails a commitment to analytic exchange and dialogue, collective interpretation, and interdisciplinary pursuits of knowledge. My classes seek to implement this approach by ranging across topics such as modern critical theory, popular culture, nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, propaganda, and the political novel.

Recent Books

  • 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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  • 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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