I am a writer specializing in American cultural history, with a focus on issues of health, race, and disability. In my work, I try to capture experiences that have been pushed to the margins of history: sleep, madness, freakishness. I am drawn to stories of people who apparently played a minor role in history (mad prophets, sleepwalking servants, itinerant performers, human curiosities) and try to imagine the world’s major historical forces and conflicts through their eyes.
Since 2006, I have been a professor of English at Emory University and am the co-founder and co-director of Emory’s Disability Studies Initiative. As a teacher, I’ve worked closely with talented graduate students, many of whom are publishing their own work and teaching at colleges and universities like University of Michigan, Clemson University, Union College, and Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan. I especially like helping them find their passion as writers and teachers. I’ve done a lot of editorial work over the years, and it’s exciting to help emerging scholars translate their passion into publishable projects. I’ve also helped students from a range of disciplines in the humanities navigate the beginnings of their teaching careers as co-director of the Mellon Graduate Teaching Fellowship program. In the fall of 2017, I’ll begin a term as chair of the English department.
I was born in Boston and grew up in Rockville, Maryland, the child of a psychiatrist, David Reiss and a psychologist, Jo Ann Reiss. My sister Sharon is a children’s book author, and she wrote a wonderful book inspired by a childhood incident in the life of our grandfather, the painter Lionel S. Reiss. In high school, I had my first literary adventures as an editor of the school’s underground satirical newspaper, The Bullsheet. I was also an aspiring violinist, but I came back to earth when I attended Oberlin College, which boasts a world-class music conservatory. I played in a number of student groups but quickly realized that I had neither the talent nor the dedication to make a career in music. Instead, I majored in English, took a bunch of history courses, wrote my thesis on this often-overlooked eccentric genius, and never looked back.
After college, I did a stint in New York, where I worked in the editorial departments of the magazines New York Woman (now defunct), Us (where my first published piece was an interview with these guys), and Esquire (where I barely survived six months as this guy’s assistant). Looking for a change of pace, I spent a year in Israel. I lived on a kibbutz, a socialist collective, where I was fascinated by the strange communal sleeping arrangements for children. (Much later, I wrote about this in Wild Nights). I also played in the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, a group made up of musicians from kibbutzim across the country. We met to rehearse for a few days every other week and toured the country, performing mainly in kibbutz dining halls. Speaking of which, one of the best things about kibbutz life is their breakfasts.
Back in the States, I headed out to California for graduate school at UC Berkeley. While I wasn’t playing pickup basketball, I managed to read a few books in American literature and history, and I served as an editor on the theory and culture journal Qui Parle. (Despite the board’s inexplicable rejection of my suggestion to change its pretentious title to Sez Who , it remains a lively interdisciplinary journal.) My first book, which grew out of my dissertation, detailed the early days of American mass media’s fascination with race and violence. It told the story of one of the first media spectacles in American history: P.T. Barnum’s exhibit of Joice Heth, an elderly, disabled enslaved woman who claimed to be the oldest living human and the former nurse of baby George Washington. Barnum took her on tour across the Northeast, and the minutest features of her exhibit were covered exhaustively in the new commercial press, in an 1830s version of reality TV. When she died, Barnum arranged to have an autopsy performed in public. He charged admission (of course) and the press debated the findings for months in a gruesome feeding frenzy. The book, The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America, was published by Harvard University Press in 2001.
In 1998, I got married to Devora Stengel – an art teacher and fellow Oberlin alum – and began my first teaching job. We moved to New Orleans, where I began a seven-year stint in the English department at Tulane University. We fell in love with the city – its history, food, music, architecture, hot nights, and strange rituals. During a research leave in 2001-2002 supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship, I worked in an amazing library in Worcester, Massachusetts, the American Antiquarian Society, on a new project on the cultural history of American insane asylums. One of my main sources was a patient-run literary journal from the 1850s, the Opal, which offered a powerful vision of life in nineteenth-century America from the perspective of the first cohort of patients in a public mental hospital. I also found records of the patients’ blackface minstrel troupe, which put on some of the strangest performances I can imagine. The book that resulted, Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture, was published in 2008 by the University of Chicago Press. Alas, the NEH, which made the book possible, is under fire; please consider supporting the good work of this organization that promotes the study of the documentary record of the past in order to shed light on our problems today.
Sadly, Devora and I and our two young children fled New Orleans in 2005 as Hurricane Katrina was barreling down on the city. We spent a limbo year in Boston, where Devora grew up, and with the help of family and friends, we got back on our feet. With the good graces of Boston College’s department of English, which provided me a lovely office and a parking pass, I spent the year finishing Theaters of Madness. By year’s end, I was fortunate to find a new faculty position at Emory University, which has long been at the forefront of connections between the humanities and health sciences. One of my closest collaborators there has been Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who is one of the pioneers and leading lights of the vibrant interdisciplinary field of disability studies. At Emory, I undertook a couple of editorial projects (The Cambridge History of the American Novel and Keywords for Disability Studies) and mapped out a new project on the cultural history of sleep. I was fortunate to team-teach a course with the neurologist David Rye, who taught me and the students about the neural underpinnings of sleep. I assembled readings on the history and culture of sleep, using scholarly works, novels, and poems. Supported by a Guggenheim fellowship, I wrote Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World a few years later. It was published in 2017 by Basic Books. Since then, I’ve been excited to enter into conversations with sleep researchers from the sciences and a number of health-related fields. I’ve even joined the board of a terrific new journal, Sleep Health.
Our family lives near Emory University in Atlanta. We belong to a wonderful, welcoming, progressive synagogue called Congregation Bet Haverim (house of friends), which has its roots as one of the first LGBT-founded synagogues in the country. It also has an exceptional music program, through which my violin has come back to life. You can hear me playing second violin on this klezmer-tinged CD.