Dr Peter Riley

Research interests

My first book, Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry (Oxford UP, May 2019) examines previously overlooked archives to consider how the poetry of Whitman the real estate dealer, Melville the customs inspector, and Crane the advertising copywriter upsets an assumed divide between inspired poetic production and other apparently lesser and contingent forms of labour. In so doing, it presents a series of readings that challenge common-sense ideas concerning vocation, meritocracy and how different gendered, raced, and classed labours are valued in contemporary society.

I am currently working on two further book projects:

1) The German-American Renaissance: Another Language/Another America 1848-1871 explores German-language literary activity in the Nineteenth Century US, challenging, if not rewriting, accepted post-war accounts of the US literary canon that tend to over-emphasise the distinct Anglophone origins of American cultural history. By 1850, five years before Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, there were six German-language newspapers and journals operating in New York City alone. The book attends to a variety of critically neglected publications and archives to investigate the extent to which the key figures of the “American Renaissance” were responsive to or in dialogue with a vibrant German-language culture.

2) Strandings: An Atlantic Cultural History of the Beached Whale emerges out of archival work undertaken during my tenure as Melville Archive Fellow at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. With a habit of washing up at watershed moments, whales are repeatedly marooned, both physically and metaphorically, within Atlantic cultural history. Examining a series of encounters with these sublime spectacles of otherness – collapsed as they are across the borders of land and sea, life and death, human and non-human – this project explores the ways in which the stranded whale has continually proffered a message of its own, at once demanding and resisting interpretation and assimilation to cultural givens.

Selected Invited Talks and Lectures:

Plenary lecture on Leaves of Grass at the École Normale Supérieure, Paris (February 2018).

“Whitman and the Transformations of Labor”. Invited plenary talks at the American Literature Research Seminars at the University of Nottingham and the University of Oxford (January and April 2017).

Roundtable on “Melville’s Biographies” at the International Melville Society Conference, KCL (July 2017).

“Traveling Traditions: Negotiations in Transatlantic Intellectual Networks”, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany (June 2014).

“Sovereignty at the Transatlantic Turn”, Transatlantic Literature in Context Seminar, Oxford (March 2014).

BrANCA Panel, “Work”, C19 Conference, Chapel Hill, North Carolina (March 2014).

Roundtable, “American Literature and the Sea”, MLA Conference, Chicago (January 2014).