Criminal Genius in African American and U.S. Literature: 1793-1845

Research output: Book/ReportAuthored book


This book locates creative genius on the plantation, in the city, in the swamp, and behind bars. The “criminal genius” at the center of each chapter is not the familiar Romantic individual but a Black collective formation. Where historicist scholarship often explicitly sets out to restore voluntaristic agency to the dispossessed, I instead identify crucial distributed agencies arising when and where criminality and creativity meet. Criminal Genius provides a more capacious way of (1) understanding the historical relationship between criminality and Blackness and (2) valuing those constitutively excluded from the liberal project.

The book draws on original archival research to map alternative constellations of agency across a range of cultural geographies, including Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic (Benjamin Rush, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen), New England crime periodicals (Samuel Frost), Black Atlantic political philosophy (David Walker), the poetics of revolt (Nat Turner and Thomas De Quincey) and the maroon aesthetics of the Great Dismal Swamp (Edgar Allan Poe). Weaving together literary, historical, and philosophical approaches, I uncover alternatives to familiar understandings of agency as the exclusive property of the autonomous liberal individual, depicted most fully as the Romantic genius. Criminal Genius shows how different forms of subjectivity, especially those associated with the criminal, the enslaved, or the nonhuman, offer a counter model of Black agency.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherJohns Hopkins University Press
Number of pages270
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2022


  • Crime Writing
  • Black Aesthetics
  • Long 19th-century US Literature
  • Early African American literature
  • Race
  • Revolt
  • Humanism


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