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Associate Professor of English
Arts, Sciences, and Engineering
Department of English
Areas of expertise: American literature to 1900, rise of the novel, the literary history of race, American sentimentalism, transatlantic theories of the aesthetic
Ezra Tawil's research has focused on American literature in English between the middle of the eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth. His work is shaped by the objectives of "literary history" in the strong sense of that term: at once the history of literary forms and an accounting of the contribution those forms made to broader historical processes. The point is not to blend literary questions and historical ones indiscriminately, but in fact to register what is particular about literary writing-the specific kinds of pleasure it offers, and the specific kinds of cultural power that distinguish it from other forms of discourse. His first book, The Making of Racial Sentiment: Slavery and the Birth of the Frontier Romance (Cambridge, 2006), showed how the period between 1750 and 1850 oversaw a decisive shift in the cultural understanding of racial difference, and argued that a particular literary genre played an important and unacknowledged role there. In a similar spirit, but with a different emphasis, his current book project takes up the origins of a specifically literary version of American exceptionalism at the end of the eighteenth century, during the period of transition from British-American colonies to U.S. nation. It was an idea that would have made little sense earlier in the colonial period, and yet it would be entirely taken for granted a century later. When did it first make sense to speak of an "American literature" as a distinct tradition, and in precisely what terms did the writers themselves do so?