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Kelvin Black

PhD English Literature, University of California, Berkeley


Kelvin C. Black is associate professor of transatlantic literature and director of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program.  He received his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley.  He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in British and American literature from Restoration to present, with a special emphasis on literatures across the long nineteenth century.

His research focuses on the literary expressions of political debates across the long nineteenth century (a period roughly from 1789 to the First World War) in the UK and U.S., with a particular emphasis on the British Romantic period as an exemplary site of interpretation for inquiries into the origins of modern political questions and dilemmas in the Anglo-American world.  

His forthcoming book entitled The Atlantic Dilemma: Reform or Revolution Across the Long Nineteenth Century calls attention to how differing narratives of change produced in the wake of the French Revolution gave rise to what the book refers to as a reform-revolution dialectic.  Across the long nineteenth century, proponents of these differing narratives of change employed historical explanation to shape political sympathies and judgments in ways that were dialectically opposed to one another.  The book’s title both names a type of thinking under constraint — that is, the constraint that the dilemma over choosing reform or revolution places on Anglo-American socio-political problem solving —, and attempts to enact a type of thinking about that constraint.  Broadly, The Atlantic Dilemma aspires to resituate British Romanticism as a point of origin for the crucial anxieties, aspirations, and dilemmas that have come to shape modern Anglo-American political thought.  In particular, the book provides a novel framework for rethinking familiar literary, political, and historical British and American sources across the long nineteenth century, often considered independently, as part of a common Atlantic archive concerned with conceptualizing and narrating the ethics of social change.

Professor Black is currently at work on another book-length project, Two Nations under Reform: The Romantic Origins of Public Policy in the UK and the U.S.  This book expands upon the argument made in The Atlantic Dilemma that modern reform thought in the U.S. and Britain finds its origins in the late eighteenth-century Anglo-British debates over the significance of the French Revolution.  Importantly, this transatlantic reform thought comes to shape understandings in both the UK and the U.S of what an improving democracy looks like. This book will provide a detailed account of how, in the effort to preserve, criticize, and democratize existing national institutions, Anglo-American reformist thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries becomes a key site for the work of nation building.  Featured in this  account is the development in the period of increasingly technocratic approaches to that work, approaches that provide the basis for a dedicated set of policy initiatives in the UK and the U.S. that claim to increase the public good.  Two Nations under Reform also features an examination of how nineteenth- and twentieth-century reform movements give rise to, utilize, and are sometimes thwarted by institutional public policy and its reform technologies.

His published research explores the British Romantic origins and legacies of modern Anglo-American political discourse.  Frederick Douglass, the Black abolitionist, race man, and political thinker, has figured prominently in Professor Black’s published work to date, as Douglass self-consciously embodies the modern dialectic between reform and revolution.  Douglass, Professor Black argues, is exemplary in this regard in terms of his shrewd articulation of both revolutionary and reform approaches to socio-political change.  Professor Black’s most recent publications contend that Douglass models a receptivity to probing the contingent possibilities of the democratic form in his own contemporary moment — its successes and its failures—, and that Douglass presents a challenge to those of us today operating within the same Anglo-American political tradition to ask: What does such a receptivity look like for us now? 


Select Publications:

--Book Chapter

Politics” in Frederick Douglass in Context, ed. Michaël Roy, Cambridge University Press, 2021.


Democracy’s False Choice: The Reform-Revolution Dilemma,” [Forum on Democracy], J19, volume 5.2, fall 2017: 381-388.

Bound by ‘the Principles of 1776’: Dilemmas in Anglo-American Romanticism & Douglass’s The Heroic Slave,” [Special issue on “Black Romanticism”], Studies in Romanticism, volume 56, issue 1, spring 2017: 93-112.

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