wild nights

Why is sleep frustrating for so many people? Why do we spend so much time and money managing and medicating it, and training ourselves and our children to do it correctly? In Wild Nights, Benjamin Reiss finds answers in sleep's hidden history--one that leads to our present, sleep-obsessed society, its tacitly accepted rules, and their troubling consequences.


"...a literary and historical triumph." - Carlos H. Schenck, M.D., author of Sleep: The Mysteries, The Problems, The Solutions

Buy the showman and the slave:

The Showman and the slave

In this compelling story about one of the nineteenth century's most famous Americans, Benjamin Reiss uses P. T. Barnum's Joice Heth hoax to examine the contours of race relations in the antebellum North. Barnum's first exhibit as a showman, Heth was an elderly enslaved woman who was said to be the 161-year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington. Seizing upon the novelty, the newly emerging commercial press turned her act--and especially her death--into one of the first media spectacles in American history.


 "This should become a classic study of antebellum history." - W. K. McNeil, Choice

buy theaters of mAdness:

Theaters of Madness

In the mid-1800s, a utopian movement to rehabilitate the insane resulted in a wave of publicly funded asylums—many of which became unexpected centers of cultural activity. Housed in magnificent structures with lush grounds, patients participated in theatrical programs, debating societies, literary journals, schools, and religious services. Theaters of Madness explores both the culture these rich offerings fomented and the asylum’s place in the fabric of nineteenth-century life, reanimating a time when the treatment of the insane was a central topic in debates over democracy, freedom, and modernity.


"This is a deeply engaging study of a fascinating topic.” - Priscilla Wald, Duke University

The Cambridge History of The American Novel

(with Leonard Cassuto and Clare Eby)

This ambitious literary history traces the American novel from its emergence in the late eighteenth century to its diverse incarnations in the multi-ethnic, multi-media culture of the present day. In a set of original essays by renowned scholars from all over the world, the volume extends important critical debates and frames new ones. +LEARN MORE 

Buy the cambridge history of the american novel:

Keywords for Disability studies

(with Rachel Adams and David Serlin)

Keywords for Disability Studies aims to broaden and define the conceptual framework of disability studies for readers and practitioners in the field and beyond. The volume engages some of the most pressing debates of our time, such as prenatal testing, euthanasia, accessibility in public transportation and the workplace, post-traumatic stress, and questions about the beginning and end of life. +LEARN MORE

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Popular Press



  • An op-ed piece in which I consider the social implications of our most common sleeping arrangement.


  • This one got me some racist hate mail, so I must have done something right.

"The Springfield Somnambulist: Or, the End of the Enlightenment in America," Common-Place, vol. 4, No. 2 (2004).

  • Here's the piece that got me started on the topic of sleep.

"Sleep's Hidden Histories," Los Angeles Review of Books (2014).

  • My roundup on recent books on sleep, society, and history

"Confessions of a Literary Barbarian," Slate (2011).

  • My response to a somewhat notorious hit piece in the Wall Street Journal

"Campus Security and the Specter of Mental-Health Profiling," The Chronicle of Higher Education (2011).

  • A piece I wrote about dangerous campus responses to shooting incidents

Academic Articles

“Sleeping While Disabled, Disabled While Sleeping,” Sleep Health 2, no. 3 (September 2016): 187-190

“Sleeping at Walden Pond: Thoreau, Abnormal Temporality, and the Modern Body,” American Literature 85, no. 1 (March 2013): 5-31

“Madness After Virginia Tech: From Psychiatric Risk to Institutional Vulnerability,” Social Text 105 (Winter 2010): 25-44 “Sleeping at Walden Pond: Thoreau, Abnormal Temporality, and the Modern Body,” American Literature 85, no. 1 (March 2013): 5-31

“Bardolatry in Bedlam: Shakespeare, Psychiatry, and Cultural Authority in Nineteenth-Century America,” ELH 72 (Winter 2005): 769-797

“Letters from Asylumia: The Opal and the Cultural Work of the Lunatic Asylum, 1850-1860,” American Literary History 16, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 1-28

“P.T. Barnum, Joice Heth, and Antebellum Spectacles of Race,” American Quarterly 51, no. 1 (March 1999): 78-107

“Madness and Mastery in Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’,” Criticism 38, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 115-15

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