Scott Saul


I enjoy writing for both academic and popular audiences. My latest book, Becoming Richard Pryor (HarperCollins, 2014), offers the first deeply researched account of the great performer's life. More information about me and the book can be found at

Becoming Richard Pryor also has a digital companion at a fully curated, multi-media website that opens up the biographer's workshop and gives everyone access to the materials I've uncovered — over 200 documents — from Pryor's first two decades in Peoria, Illinois.

My interests run to the great cultural watershed that was modernism in the arts -- whether it took the form of William Carlos Williams's poetry, Charlie Chaplin's films, or Duke Ellington's music -- and to the starburst of creative activity that has followed up to the present. I'm especially interested in the connections between 20th- and 21st-century artistic movements and 20th- and 21st-century social movements — or, on the individual level, how particular artists are catalyzed by the history they are living through.

I generally teach courses in 20th- and 21st-century American literature and cultural history, ranging from "The Culture of the Cold War" and "The Seventies" to "Fictions of Los Angeles," "American Avant-Gardes" and "Race and Performance in the 20th-century U.S." I have also taught a seminar on the history of Berkeley and the East Bay in the 1960s and 1970s, whose class project was the creation of "The Berkeley Revolution," a digital history website that hosts over 600 curated primary sources from the time. I enjoy pulling my students together in collaborative writing projects: recent projects include The Godfather: Anatomy of a Film (an outgrowth of my lecture course on the 1970s) and Unlocking Key & Peele (an outgrowth of my lecture course on the age of Obama). 

I also have taught an undergraduate workshop in creative nonfiction. Some excellent student writing from the course can be found at

Current Research: 

Becoming Richard Pryor (HarperCollins, 2014) is a biography of the artist who revolutionized American comedy. The book traces Pryor's journey from a childhood spent in Peoria’s red light district to his arrival in the 1970s as the “funniest person on the planet” and one of Hollywood’s most unlikely and unforgettable stars. It is impossible to imagine the art of stand-up comedy without Pryor, its most versatile and charismatic figure. More than any previous comedian, he used the intimate details of his own life — his addictions, his relationships, his traumas — as the foundation of his act and the starting-point for his exploration of the meaning of America. Becoming Richard Pryor suggests that, for all the power of that stage act, it was always a refraction of his life, never the life itself. The life itself was a story so harrowing that it often couldn’t be processed into stand-up, even by the comedian who opened stand-up to the darkest of impulses. His stage act was in so small part an act of will, an assertion of control over a private world where control was in short supply.



Scott Saul
Monograph, 2014

Selected Publications

My first book, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Harvard University Press, 2003), offered a new account of the cultural transformation of "the sixties" by putting the music of jazz -- and all the artists and activists inspired by the music -- at the center of that story.


“The Great Deflector” (on Fran Ross). Los Angeles Review of Books, July 22, 2019.

“For the Love of People: Berkeley’s Rainbow Sign and the Secret History of the Black Arts Movement.” Co-authored with Tessa Rissacher. Current Research in Digital History, Vol. 2 (2019).

“Rough: A Journey into the Drafts of Portnoy’s Complaint.” Post45. April 12, 2019. 

“Triple Conscious Brothers in the Veil: Reading Michael Harper Through John Brown, Through W.E.B. DuBois,” Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Fall 2016.

“’’What You See Is What You Get’: Wattstax, Richard Pryor, and the Secret History of the Black Aesthetic.” Post45, Aug. 12 2014.

"The Humanities in Crisis? Not at Most Schools." New York Times, July 3, 2013. In this op-ed I countered the myth of the humanities' decline by drawing on two things: my own experience teaching English majors at UC-Berkeley, and the statistical record.

"A Player's Life" (biographical essay on Richard Pryor). No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert (Shout! Factory, 2013). I was thrilled to contribute an extensive essay to this definitive (seven-CD and two-DVD) boxed-set of Pryor's stand-up performances.

"'Etc., Etc.': The Post-Punk Ballad of Rodger Young." The Daniel Clowes Reader (Fantagraphics, 2013). I was honored to be included in this collection, a wonderful critical edition of Ghost World and other important pieces by the great contemporary cartoonist. A decent-sized sample of the book can be found here.

Gente-fication on Demand: The Cultural Redevelopment of South LA.” In Josh Sides, ed., Post-Ghetto: Reimagining South Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

"Off Minor" (review of Robin Kelley, Thelonious Monk: An American Original). Boston Review, Sept.-Oct. 2010. Using Robin Kelley's magisterial and definitive biography of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk as my jumping-off point, I consider the surprising twists and turns of Monk's life and try to pin down the elusive intelligence of his music. Humor, wit and pathos were braided together in Monk's music -- and, as Kelley suggests, they were braided together in his life as well.

"A Body on the Gears" (review of Robert Cohen, Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the Sixties). The Nation, March 29, 2010. The activist-intellectual at the center of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio helped ignite campuses across the US and set the tone of the New Left. Yet Savio's own personal story has for too long been untold. Here I reflect on the roots of Savio's activism and on its legacy, given the crisis facing public higher education in California today.

"Suspended Sentences" (review of several books by essayist-critic Eliot Weinberger). The Nation, Oct. 19, 2009: 33-37. Eliot Weinberger has been experimenting in ingenious ways with the form of the nonfiction essay for over two decades now, bringing it into the orbit of poetry and magical realism, but it's his recent political commentary that has gained him greater renown. Here I try to bring together the "two Eliot Weinbergers."

"Gridlock of Rage: The Watts and Rodney King Riots." In The Blackwell Companion to the History of Los Angeles (Blackwell, 2011). Here I survey the historical literature on these two cataclysmic events, which have served as Exhibit A for any number of theories on the state of black America and the fate of America's cities, and offer some suggestions for future research.

"Off Camera: Civil Rights in the North" (review of Thomas J. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North). The Nation, June 22, 2009: 25-31. Sugrue's encyclopedic history of the Civil Rights movement in the North seems likely to become the standard reference point for future discussions of the Northern wing of the movement. In this review-essay I try to encapsulate how the book, in an understated but powerful way, shifts our understanding of the movement, even as it has trouble meeting the narrative challenges it takes on.

"Protest Lit 101". American Literary History 21:2 (Summer 2009), 404-417. How to teach the dynamic between art and social movements? Here I meditate on the juggling act required in the classroom, reviewing two anthologies and one critical survey. Find my essay at

“Sweet Martin’s Badass Song”. The Nation, May 19, 2008: 36-41. In this omnibus review of several new books on Martin Luther King's life, I reflect on some less-known aspects of King: his skill as a rhetorician, a speaker with a keen ability to tune his message to the needs of his different audiences, and his commitment to remedying class inequality in America.

“Brazil’s Dreamer: The Disenchantment and Reenchantment of Chico Buarque”. Boston Review, June/July 2007, 35-38. Working at the crossroads of bossa nova and Brecht, Carnival and Kafka, Chico Buarque is perhaps Brazil’s most celebrated living artist; he was once called “the man every woman wanted to marry and every man wanted to emulate.” Here’s my appraisal of his album "Carioca" and his first three novels.

“On the Lower Frequencies: Rethinking the Black Power Movement”. Harper’s Magazine, December 2006, 92-98. More and more historians are starting to question the morality play that has structured the way we remember the Civil Rights and Black Power movements – and I have to agree with the impulse, though it makes the Black Power movement all the more difficult to encapsulate in an image or catchphrase. See my review (available to Harper’s subscribers) of two recent Black Power books at:

"Fade to White”. Bookforum, Oct./Nov. 2005, 41-43.This essay, which reconsiders the deaths at Jonestown and the lead-up to that tragedy, is available at Rebecca Moore’s extensive website on the Peoples Temple at:

"An Uneasy Embrace" (Review of Chen Shi-Zheng, "Peach Blossom Fan" at CalArts). Theater, 2005 (35:1), 98-101. Chinese-born director Chen Shi-Zheng, in collaboration with Magnetic Fields songwriter Stephen Merritt and playwright Edward Mast, produced a postmodern musical version of Kung Shang-Ren’s 1699 play. See my review at:

“The Seductions of Caetano Veloso”. Raritan, Spring 2005, 45-69.Caetano Veloso is one of the world’s great songwriters, a musician who has nimbly managed to be both an unstoppable provocateur and an expert craftsman of love songs. Here’s a one-stop introduction to Veloso’s music and the Brazilian cultural revolution he helped spark.(Article available via WilsonWeb)

"The Devil and Henry Dumas". Boston Review, Oct.-Nov. 2004. Writer Henry Dumas—fantasist, fabulist, dark comedian—offers another perspective on the character of the Black Arts Movement.

“’Mirage or No Mirage’: Reading Los Angeles”. Boston Review, Dec. 2003-Jan. 2004, 41-44.A consideration of the mythologies of Los Angeles, inspired by David Ulin’s edited collection Writing Los Angeles:

Review of Ruben Martinez, Crossing Over: A Family on the Migrant Trail, Boston Review, February-March 2002. 62-63. Martinez’s book offers an insightful look at the lives of Mexican migrants — and a vivid portrayal of how globalization works on the human scale, in small-towns of both Mexico and the US. See my review at:

“Outrageous Freedom: Charles Mingus and the Invention of the Jazz Workshop”. American Quarterly, Fall 2001, 387-419. An early version of the argument from Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, available for Project Muse subscribers at:

"Mysteries of the Postmodern Deep: Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories from Moby Dick," Theater 30:2 (Summer 2000). 160-163.I can’t help loving the work of Laurie Anderson, even when I’m mystified or frustrated by some of its choices. Here’s my ambivalent consideration of her version of Melville’s Moby Dick — available to Project Muse subscribers at:


Wheeler 332

Spring 2024 Office Hours

Thursday 10-noon (over Zoom)