Michaels, Walter Benn

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Michaels, Walter Benn

PERSONAL: Male. Education: University of California, Santa Barbara, B.A., 1970, Ph.D., 1975.

ADDRESSES: Office—University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of English, 601 South Morgan Street, Chicago, IL 60607-7120. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Writer and educator. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, assistant professor, 1974–77, professor, 1987–2001, chair of English department, 1998–2001; University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor, 1977–80, associate professor, 1980–86, professor, 1986–87; University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, professor of English, 2001–, head of department, 2002–. Joseph Warren Beach lecturer, University of Minnesota, 1987; Leventritt lecturer in the arts, Harvard University museums, 1994; Distinguished Professor of American Literature, Tel Aviv University, 1996; visiting professor, Cornell University School of Criticism and Theory, 1997; Vardi Lecturer, Tel Aviv University, 1999; Ian Watt lecturer, Stanford University, 2001; Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar. Member, Christian Gauss Prize Committee, Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards, 2000–03. Member, editorial board of publishers, including Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993–97, and Cambridge University Press American Literature, 1997–. Member of editorial boards for periodicals, including Glyph, 1976–81, Representations, 1982–88, ELH, 1988–2001, American Quarterly, 1989–92, Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, 1988–98, Arizona Quarterly, 1988–, and Nineteenth Century Studies, 1995–.

AWARDS, HONORS: Johns Hopkins University centennial fellow, 1974; American Council of Learned Societies fellow, 1978; Regents' junior faculty fellow, University of California, Berkeley, 1978; humanities research grant, University of California, Berkeley, 1986; Sunderland fellow, University of Michigan Law School, 1987; Whitney J. Oates fellow in the humanities, Princeton University, 1989.


(Editor, with Donald E. Pease) The American Renaissance Reconsidered, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1985.

The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1987.

(Author of text, with Catherine Quéloz) James Welling: Photographs 1977–90 (exhibition catalogue), Künsthalle Bern (Bern, Switzerland), 1990.

Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1995.

The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2004.

Contributor to periodicals and scholarly journals, including Paideuma, Georgia Review, MLN, Critical Inquiry, Glyph, Structuralist Review, Raritan, Texas Law Review, New Literary History, American Literary History, Representations, Southern California Law Review, Modern Language Quarterly, and Henry James Review. Contributor to books, including The State of the Language, edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1980; American Realism: New Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1982; Legal Hermeneutics, edited by Gregory Leyh, University of California Press, 1992; Cultures of U.S. Imperialism, edited by Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1995; The Uses of Literary History, edited by Marshall Brown, Duke University Press, 1995; and Faulker in the Twenty-first Century, edited by R. W. Hamblin and Ann J. Abadie, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2003.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Promises of American Life: 1880–1920, volume three of "Cambridge History of American Literature" series.

SIDELIGHTS: Author and educator Walter Benn Michaels has published widely on American writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, and Henry James. He has written on topics such as race, slavery, new historicism, and legal and literary interpretation. Michaels is the recipient of numerous fellowships, and he frequently serves as a speaker, lecturer, and visiting professor.

In Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism Michaels presents a "provocative study of the interrelation between formal modernism … and the new wave of nativism and concern with cultural pluralism that swept the United States in the interwar period," explained Werner Sollors in Modern Philology. The book "challenges common understandings of cultural identity," noted Todd DeStigter in English Education. Through the use of what the critic calls "painstakingly crafted argument," Michaels indicates that modernist texts of the 1920s promoted "nativist modernism," by which culture becomes the primary means of preserving race as the basis of a group's collective identity.

While culture thus became inseparably linked to race, in practice, people of several different races might identify with one single culture. However, as Michaels points out, because people can forsake or be denied their culture, the common theme remains race rather than an individual's personal beliefs or behaviors. Cultural identity, therefore, becomes a type of racism, since cultural identity cannot exist without the presence of the racial identities it rejects. Those who claim that other races are stealing their culture assume "some special relation between race and culture such that racial identity counts as importantly determining cultural identity, that is, as determining the cultural practices you have a right to if not necessarily the cultural practices you in fact engage in," Michaels explains in his book. The modern concept of culture developed from the 1920s notion of "the anticipation of culture by race: to be a Navajo you have to do Navajo things, but you don't really count as doing Navajo things unless you already are a Navajo," as Michaels observed.

"In his thirteen short chapters, Michaels punctures again and again the many fallacies that result from attempting to distinguish 'race' from 'culture' and that have so deeply permeated American practice," Stollers observed. Priscilla Wald, writing in Modern Language Quarterly, remarked that the book "gets under the skin, into the blood, and at the heart of the deepest anxieties of the body politic."

Moving from sociology to literature, Michaels argues that an authors' intentions are critical to interpreting a specific text in The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Authors' intent also takes precedence over reader's experience with a text in determining the meaning of a literary work, he adds. Drawing on works by poet Susan Howe, science-fiction writers Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson, and artist Robert Smithson, Michaels explores how concepts of meaning and interpretation of literary texts become enmeshed in post-modern readers' concepts of differing cultural identities.

According to Michaels, "multicultural" notions of culture and language impede the meaningful interpretation of texts. These types of interpretations must fall short, because they cannot and do not take into consideration the author's explicit intent with regard to the work. Believing that a text has more than one meaning becomes the same as believing it has no meaning, Michaels suggests. The Shape of the Signifier "is so comprehensive that it is sure to address an area or contemporary thinker of interest to any reader," commented Heather Morton in the Virginia Quarterly Review. In Library Journal Gene Shaw described the work as a "wide-ranging, rigorously argued analysis of important ideas" in literature and art.



Michaels, Walter Benn, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1995.


Choice, December, 2004, W. F. Williams, review of The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, p. 656.

English Education, October, 2001, Todd DeStigter, review of Our America, p. 72.

Library Journal, September 1, 2004, Gene Shaw, review of The Shape of the Signifier, p. 150.

Modern Language Quarterly, March, 1998, Priscilla Wald, review of Our America, p. 124.

Modern Philology, May, 1999, Werner Sollors, review of Our America, p. 550.

Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 2005, Heather Morton, review of The Shape of the Signifier, p. 289.


University of Illinois at Chicago Web site, http://www.uic.edu/ (March 31, 2005), "Walter Benn Michaels."

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