Samuel Otter has taught in the English Department at the University of California at Berkeley since 1990. He served as department chair from 2009 to 2012. His research and teaching focus on nineteenth-century United States literatures. He is particularly interested in the relationships between literature and history, the varieties of literary excess, and the ways in which close textual interpretation also can be deep and wide.
He has published Melville’s Anatomies (California, 1999), an analysis of how Melville, in his long fiction of the 1840s and 1850s, portrayed the ways in which meanings, particularly racial meanings, were abstracted from human bodies. In Philadelphia Stories (Oxford, 2010), he examined narratives about race, character, manners, violence, and freedom in a range of works produced about Philadelphia and its “free” African American communities between 1790 and 1860. These works regarded the city as a social laboratory in which possible futures for a post-slavery United States would be tested. He currently is working on a book titled Melville’s Forms, assessing the entire career (long and short fiction, poetry, and prose/poetry experiments), in which he considers what Melville meant by, and so what 21st-century literary critics might more precisely mean by, the tiny, crucial term "form."
He has co-edited Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation (North Carolina, 2008) and Melville and Aesthetics (Palgrave, 2011). He was the editor of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies (2014-2019) and has served on the editorial boards of American Literature, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Nineteenth-Century Literature, PMLA, and Representations. His essays have appeared in journals such as American Literature, American Literary History, Representations, and Raritan.
In recent years, he has taught the English Department's Honors course for senior English majors; undergraduate seminars on Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, American Transcendentalism, Edgar Allan Poe, and Moby-Dick; lecture courses on American literature before 1800 and American literature 1800-1865; the department’s introduction to graduate study; and graduate seminars on the literature of Civil War and Reconstruction, nineteenth-century U.S. historical poetics, Melville and questions of literary form, and transatlantic literature from the late 18th- to the mid-19th centuries.
Book in progress: Melville's Forms
In the 1980s, Melville’s fiction played a significant role in the renewed emphasis on historical and political criticism that dominated American literary studies for a generation (see Bercovitch and Jehlen 1986). In the early twenty-first century, the example of Melville cautions against a “return” to form (the summons of recent critics) and offers an alternative to perceiving the history of literary criticism as a series of oscillations between form and history. To attend to Melville’s verbal forms is to confront issues of time, substance, network, and image. Evaluating what “form” meant to Melville, in concept and in literary practice, I hope both to illuminate his career and to advance our understanding of this crucial term in literary studies. Each of the chapters of my book considers an aspect of verbal form: style (characteristic verbal line), formlessness (not the opposite of form but its shadow), context (the excessive historicity of literature), ekphrasis (two chapters at the center of the book about words, images, and the representation of time), and the relationships between prose and poetry. Melville understood “form” in such an array: not as a structure, a given, but as the uneasy intersection of systems in which information is shaped and conveyed and in which expectation and transgression are continually modifying one another. My book chapters follow the development of Melville’s writing from extended fiction to short fiction to poetry to prose/poetry experiments, but within the chapters I connect the earlier and later work and argue across genres, avoiding the usual narratives about Melville that emphasize generic contrast and often portray imaginative diminishment. Instead, I suggest that Melville’s protean enterprise, diverging from expectations about genre, topic, and politics, then and now eluding the grasp of many critics and readers in its duration and shifting intensities, provokes questions about how and why we define a literary career.