Research and Books

Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture, released from Princeton University Press on January 31, 2023. Composed as a book of devotion, in 28 short reflections, Thoreau’s Axe explores the long history of distraction in American culture. Two hundred years ago, in the era of Thoreau, new economic and social forces provoked widespread concerns about the population’s physical, psychic, and spiritual deterioration. In response, writers and reformers developed new disciplines of attention, designed to repair the damage. Thoreau’s Axe is a critical cultural history of economic and moral manipulation; but it is also an experiment in close reading as a discipline of attention.

  • Read a profile from the Boston Globe.
  • Read an excerpt from Lithub.
  • Read a review from The Spectator.
  • Read a review from the Wall Street Journal.
  • Read a review from Penniless Press.
  • Read an advance review from Publisher’s Weekly.




The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, by Austin Reed, Edited and with an Introduction by Caleb Smith. Foreword by David W. Blight and Robert B. Stepto. Composed around 1858 but undiscovered and unpublished for a century and a half, Reed’s narrative is the first known prison memoir by an African American writer.




The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War tells the stories of the dissenters, exhorters, and self-styled martyrs who made their claims to justice by calling on a “higher law.” It shows how the formal secularization of the legal system allowed for new kinds of inspired protest and militancy, and it explores how early American literature defined itself in relation to the law’s public sphere.



The Prison and the American Imagination is a cultural history of the penitentiary system. Tracing the genealogy of mass incarceration to the penal reforms of the early nineteenth century, it shows how the prison came to be imagined as a scene of ceremonial mortification and rebirth.






*Caleb Smith, “Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age.” Critical Inquiry, Summer 2019. Article on the history of distraction and the disciplines of attention in Antebellum America. Link.

* Caleb Smith, “Charismatic Malediction.” The Immanent Frame, October 15, 2014. An short essay on martyrdom, masochism, and the nineteenth-century public sphere. “These are the visions of divinity and posterity that we encounter in the archives of martyrdom in antebellum America: of a charismatic power generated out of opposition to secular institutions, of a public called to resistance by a profession that comes echoing through space and time.” Link.

* Caleb Smith, “From the Critique of Power to the Poetics of Justice.” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1:1 (Spring 2013). Contribution to a forum on critical methods, edited by Nancy Bentley, for the journal’s first issue. “What would it feel like not to be dominated?” PDF: smith, poetics of justice

* Caleb Smith, “Harriet Jacobs among the Militants: Transformations in Abolition’s Public Sphere, 1859-1861.” American Literature 84:4 (December 2012). Article on the making and reception of Jacobs’s slave narrative, with special attention to the repression of a chapter about the militant John Brown. “A circum-Atlantic project of black resistance, liberation, and uplift that traversed the boundaries of race and gender.” PDF: smith, jacobs among militants

* Caleb Smith, “Harry Hawser’s Fate: Eastern State Penitentiary and the Birth of Prison Literature.” In Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell, eds. Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. Essay on the first book of prison poetry to emerge from Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, describing how the author was recruited to answer the protests of the English novelist Charles Dickens. “The subversive potential of prison literature…is the menacing counterpart created alongside a genre whose official purpose was to bless or legitimate the modern regime of punishment.” PDF: smith, harry hawser’s fate

* Caleb Smith, “Emerson and Incarceration.” American Literature 78:2 (June 2006). Article about Emerson’s visit to the New Hampshire State Penitentiary and how his visions of solitary self-cultivation resonated with the isolation of inmates in the rising prison system. Honorable mention for the Foerster Prize, presented by the Modern Language Association’s Division on American Literature. “How deeply, and often secretly, real captivity influences the ongoing imagination of freedom.” PDF: smith, emerson and incarceration