Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities
My areas of study include American literature, English and French Caribbean Literatures, Haitian historiography, and American legal scholarship. In A Rainbow for the Christian West: The Poetry of René Depestre (1977), I introduced to an English-speaking audience Depestre’s early epic poem about the vodou gods and their journey to the American South. With Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (1987), I turned to Poe’s fictions as complicated critiques of the traditions of romance and the gothic. Emphasizing a Calvinist Poe rather than a transcendental one, I argued that his studies of mind (reinvigorating Locke, Newton, Edwards, and Swift) are not anachronistically modern but have simply been misread outside their natural context of early American writing. Haiti, History and the Gods (1998) tells the story of colonial Haiti from the composite perspectives of legal and religious texts, letters, fiction, and my own knowledge of the country.
My recent books are The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007), which exposes the paradox of the eighth amendment to the Constitution, showing that in the United States, cycles of jurisprudence safeguard rights and then justify their revocation; and The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011), which examines how the fictions and language of law turn persons (and other legal non-entities like dogs, ghosts, slaves, felons, and terror suspects) into “rightless objects.” The Law is a White Dog was selected by Choice as one of top-25 "Outstanding Academic Books" for 2011. With dogs at the edge of life will be published in December 2015.
Over the past ten years, I have written widely on prison rights, the legalities of torture, canine profiling, animal law, and the racial contours of US practices of punishment for The Boston Review, The New York Times, The London Review of Books, and Al Jazeera America, where I am a contributing editor.
Honors include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and fellowships from the Danforth Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Davis Center for Historical Studies and the Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton.
Film screening of my presentation/monologue “Legal Sorcery,” Kassel documenta 14: http://www.documenta14.de/en/calendar/23458/legal-sorcery