Jesse McCarthy

Cohort 2011–2012.  I entered the PhD program at Princeton in 2011, five years after getting my BA in English from Amherst College. Probably because I had been out of school for longer than many others in my cohort, I was really grateful to have the first two years of coursework to get comfortable being in the classroom again, especially taking the summers to catch up on reading. I also learned a great deal about other fields and methodologies from my peers in English and friends in other programs.

Charting a course toward my dissertation project had its challenges. I had imagined I would be studying under Valerie Smith, a legendary scholar of African American literature. But professor Smith was transitioning at that very moment to an administrative career that would eventually take her away from Princeton to become the first African American president of Swarthmore College. I was enormously fortunate to have the guidance and mentorship of Daphne Brooks who steered me in the right direction and ultimately served as chair of my dissertation committee alongside Kinohi Nishikawa and Joshua Guild (History), two brilliant and scholars and generous mentors who shaped my thinking and my research. At the time, Princeton did not have a Department of African American Studies but there was a Center of African American Studies and through CAAS I made countless important connections with fellow graduate students at Princeton and beyond. I also benefited from the remarkable community of care and mentorship fostered by Imani Perry, Eddie Glaude Jr., Dionne Worthy, the entire staff, and all the visiting scholars and fellows who enlivened Stanhope Hall.

There was great leadership in the English department at that time, especially by Bill Gleason who went to great lengths to support the graduate student program. I was lucky to meet and collaborate with Joshua Kotin who was teaching courses on modernist poetry and the archive. We were able to partner with Princeton’s (then brand new) Center for Digital Humanities on a major Digital Humanities initiative to digitize materials in the Sylvia Beach papers in Firestone Library, which eventually became the Shakespeare and Company Project. All of this led me to become increasingly interested in questions of archival recovery in general, as well as what I came to view as a set of intertwined problems centered around arguments between black writers and poets active in the early postwar period, about the role of ideological commitment and aesthetic freedom in literature. These research questions consumed me even as the political situation in the country became increasingly tense as the Black Lives Matter movement took hold around the entire country, including the Princeton campus where protests led to walkouts, die-ins, and, for a time, the occupation by student activists of Nassau Hall. It was in this context that I started writing about politics and culture for the public; first for the magazine the Point, and then for a number of other small magazines like The Nation, Dissent, and n+1.

I defended my dissertation in 2018 and received a tenure-track job offer at Harvard where I started that fall as an assistant professor appointed in the English Department and in the African and African American Studies Department. At Harvard I have taught courses on literature and migration, themes in black literary history and intellectual culture, and courses on modern American literature. I am currently completing work on a book based on my dissertation entitled The Blue Period: Black Writing and the Early Cold War. I recently wrote an introduction for a new edition of Vincent O. Carter’s long out-of-print memoir The Bern Book published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2020. I am a contributor to the forthcoming Richard Wright in Context and Ralph Ellison in Context, both published by Cambridge University Press. My first book, a collection of essays entitled Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? will be published by Norton Liveright in March 2021.