Berkeley English Faculty

Samuel Otter

Samuel Otter

Professor; Clyde and Evelyn Slusser Chair in English Literature

Office hours via Zoom
Mon. 1-2:30 pm and Tues. 4-5:30 pm. Please email me to make an appointment.

Professional Statement

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 Moby-Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James; lecture courses on American literature before 1800 and American literature 1800-1865; the department’s introduction to graduate study; and graduate seminars on Melville and questions of literary form, 19th-century American literature beyond the canon, and transatlantic literature from the late 18th- to the mid-19th centuries.

Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom
Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom

A historic and symbolic city on the border between slavery and freedom, antebellum Philadelphia was home to one of the largest and most influential "free" African American communities in the United States. The city was seen by residents and observer....(read more)

Selected Publications and Papers Delivered


Philadelphia Stories: America's Literature of Race and Freedom. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.

Melville’s Anatomies.  Univ. of California Press, 1999.  

Melville and Aesthetics. Co-edited with Geoffrey Sanborn (Bard College). Palgrave, 2011.

Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation. Co-edited with Robert S. Levine (Univ. of Maryland). Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Selected Essays

“Melville’s Style,” in The New Melville Studies, ed. Cody Marrs (Cambridge Univ. Press, forthcoming in 2018).

“Melville, Poetry, Prints,” in Melville’s Philosophies, ed. Branka Arsić and K. L. Evans (Bloomsbury, 2017).

American Renaissance and Us.” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 3.2 (Fall 2015).

“Reading Moby-Dick.” In The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, 2nd edition. Ed. Robert S. Levine (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

"Frank Webb's Still Life: Rethinking Literature and Politics through The Garies and Their Friends."  American Literary History 20.4 (Winter 2008).

"An Aesthetics in All Things."  Representations 104 (Fall 2008).

"How Clarel Works." In A Companion to Melville Studies, ed. Wyn Kelley (Blackwell, 2006).

"Melville and Disability."  Special issue of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 8.1 (March 2006), co-edited with David T. Mitchell (George Washington Univ.). 

"'An Almost Incredible Book': Fiction and Fact in Melville's Typee."  ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 51.1-3 (2005).

“Stowe and Race,” in The Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Cindy Weinstein (Cambridge University Press, 2004). 

Recent Lectures and Conference Papers

Moby-Dick Meets Frankenstein” (keynote address at International Conference on Romanticism, University of Texas at El Paso, Oct. 2017)

“‘Very Counterparts’ and ‘Inverted Similitudes’: Melville’s 1850s Diptychs of England and the United States” (“Melville’s Crossings,” conference at Kings College, London, June 2017)

“‘Interiors Measurelessly Strange’: Melville and Piranesi” (University of Georgia and also Princeton Workshop in American Studies, April 2016).

“Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’ as Opera” (lecture on Poe operas and also public conversation with composer Gordon Getty, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, Dec. 2015).

“Melville’s Islands” (“Melville in a Global Context, Tokyo, June 2015).

“Out from Behind This Mask”: Word and Image in Whitman’s Two Rivulets and Leaves of Grass” (“The Visual and the Verbal: Image/Text in American Print Culture to 1900,” conference at the American Antiquarian Society, Nov. 2014).

“Melville, Welles, and Moby-Dick” (“Symposium: Transformative Stage—Sea Change in Orson Welles and Herman Melville,” Stanford Univ., Aug. 2014).

“Melville Poetry, Prints” (Charles Mills Gayley Annual Lecture, Berkeley, Apr. 2013; revised version delivered at Columbia University, April 2014).

“Melville and Whitman in Prose and Poetry” (“Melville and Whitman in Washington, DC: The Civil War and After,” conference held at George Washington University, June 2013).

“Moby-Dick; or, the Squid” (San Francisco State University, Nov. 2012).

Current Research

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.

In Melville’s Forms, I examine verbal form in terms of the relationships that give it definition: between parts and wholes, structure and duration, inside and outside, word and image, and prose and poetry. Focusing on Melville, whose work has served an exemplary function in the development of American literary criticism, and revising our understanding of the forms and form of his literary career, I provide an alternative to the persistent, now resurgent, and misguided choice between “form” and “history,” “text” and “context.” Rather than an alternative to such relations, literary form is located at their tense, vibrant intersection.


English Department Classes
fall, 2021


Practices of Literary Study: Poe and More

spring, 2021


American Literature: Before 1800

130A/101 -- discussion section

No instructor assigned yet.

130A/102 -- discussion section

No instructor assigned yet.


Research Seminar: The Other Melville

fall, 2020


American Literature: 1800-1865

130B/101 -- discussion section

Robinson, Jared

130B/102 -- discussion section

Robinson, Jared


Graduate Pro-seminar: The Literature of Civil War and Reconstruction

spring, 2020


Introduction to the Study of Fiction

fall, 2019


American Literature: 1800-1865


Research Seminar: American Transcendentalism

spring, 2019


Research Seminar: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln


Graduate Readings: Nineteenth-Century U. S. Historical Poetics