Caleb Smith

Caleb Smith's picture
Professor of English and American Studies
LC 311



Personal website:


B.A., English, UC Berkeley 1999
Ph.D., English, Duke, 2005

Teaching and Research:

I teach American literature, very broadly defined, ranging from the early national period through the twentieth century. My courses include introductory sections and lectures in American literary history, a senior seminar on William Faulkner, and a graduate seminar on literature and power. In 2007 I worked with Professor Caryl Phillips to develop “The Literature of the Middle Passage,” a course on literature and the Atlantic slave trade that included a ten-day trip to Ghana.

My research explores the dream-life of power, or the relations between social imaginaries and legal institutions. My first book, The Prison and the American Imagination (Yale UP, 2009), is a cultural history of the penitentiary system. Tracing a genealogy of mass incarceration to the penal reforms of the early nineteenth century, I show how the prison came to be imagined as a scene of ceremonial death and rebirth. In a second book, The Oracle and the Curse (Harvard UP, 2013), I turn from sites of punishment to scenes of judgment. I tell the stories of dissenters, exhorters, and self-styled martyrs who made their claims to justice by invoking a “higher law.” The Oracle and the Curse argues that the formal secularization of the legal system allowed for new kinds of protest and militancy. Along the way, it considers how early American literature defined itself against the law’s public sphere. My new project is an edition of “The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict,” an 1858 memoir by Austin Reed, a free black man who spent much of his life in New York’s Auburn State Prison, to be published by Random House in 2016.

I have written on contemporary media and the arts for Bomb, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Paper Monument, and Avidly. I regularly review new fiction for Yale Review, and I am a co-editor of No Crisis, a special series on the state of criticism in the twenty-first century, which will appear from The Los Angeles Review of Books online and in print in 2015.

Selected Publications:

The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)

The Prison and the American Imagination, Yale University Press (Yale UP 2009)

–“Harriet Jacobs among the Militants: Transformations in Abolition’s Public Sphere, 1859-1861American Literature (December 2012).

–“Detention without Subjects.Texas Studies in Literature and Language (September 2008).

–“Emerson and Incarceration.” American Literature (June 2006).

Undergraduate Courses: American Literature: Civil War to World War I; William Faulkner; Law and Literature; Introduction to American Literature

Graduate Courses: Antebellum American Literature and Culture; Literary Studies and the Critique of Power