Dr Geoffrey Kirsch, Trinity




Biographical Information

I am currently a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College, and recently received my PhD in English from Harvard University.  My research interests lie at the intersection of nineteenth-century American literature and legal, economic, and political history.  My book project, Opening New Channels: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Law of Commerce, examines the intertwined growth of American literature and the American market.  Literary historians ascribe the birth of a distinctly national literature to the middle decades of the nineteenth century.  Economic and legal historians have described those same decades as the “market revolution,” in which infrastructural development replaced local economies with an interconnected national and global market.  The market’s unprecedented growth was counterpoised by efforts to limit its reach, a dialectic that shaped each of the era’s major legal and political questions.  International free trade engendered economic and cultural homogeneity, and accordingly provoked protectionist backlash.  Industrial accidents among strangers prompted courts both to expand the scope of legal responsibility into a universal “duty of care” and to cabin that duty within narrow limits.  Interstate commerce—including the trade of cotton and enslaved people—at once extended the reach of federal power and sharpened the opposing rhetoric of states’ rights, the latter invoked to defend both the “domestic institutions” of the South from federal interference and the domestic liberty of fugitive slaves in the North from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Opening New Channels traces the same formal tension between expansion and containment, between the sprawling networks of trade and their legal and political boundaries, in the works of authors such as Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry David Thoreau.  I examine how literary texts such as Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” question whether and how to curtail the scope of moral and legal responsibility within market society.  So, too, do I foreground these authors’ efforts to erect boundaries around the market in order to safeguard what Emerson called “thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable”: domesticity for Stowe, or nature for Thoreau, or literature itself for Hawthorne.  While earlier studies generally situate these writers either within or outside their economic and political context, I envision them as “entrepreneurs” who neither endorse nor disavow the existing market so much as they reimagine and sublimate it, as in Thoreau’s titular exhortation to “open new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”  To corroborate my analysis, I close-read canonical literary texts alongside legal, political, and economic primary sources such as commercial magazines, advertisements, political speeches and pamphlets, legal and economic treatises, and judicial opinions. 

My writing has appeared or will be appearing in American Literary RealismLaw, Culture and the Humanities; the Los Angeles Review of BooksModern Fiction Studies; The New England Quarterly; the New Rambler Review of BooksPMLA; and the Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Journal.  I previously earned a B.A. in English, summa cum laude, from Dartmouth College, where I was valedictorian of the Class of 2009, and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School.  I worked as a law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and practiced appellate and corporate litigation in Boston before returning to academia.

Research Interests

19th and early 20th century American literary history; law and literature; American legal history and constitutional law; Transcendentalism; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Henry David Thoreau; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Herman Melville; Frederick Douglass; Harriet Beecher Stowe; Henry James; Charles Chesnutt; Edith Wharton; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Selected Publications

Peer-Reviewed Articles:         

“Piercing the Corporate Whale: Agents, Principals, and the Personified Impersonal in Moby-Dick.”  Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, forthcoming 2024.

“‘What’s He a Judge Of?’: Blood Meridian’s Paths of Law.”  Law, Culture and the Humanities 19, no. 3 (2023): pp. 569-83.

“Loss Without Remedy: Moby-Dick and the Laws of Compensation.”  PMLA 138, no. 1 (2023): pp. 37-51.

“Innocence and the Arena: Wharton, Roosevelt, and Good Citizenship.”  American Literary Realism 51, no. 3 (2019): pp. 200-19.

“‘So Much a Piece of Nature’: Emerson, Webster, and the Transcendental Constitution.”  The New England Quarterly 91, no. 4 (2018): pp. 625-50.

“Henry James, Inheritance, and the Problem of the Dead Hand.”  Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Journal 47, no. 3 (2013): pp. 435-65.

Book Chapters/Reference Works:

“Infra-Humanism and Infrastructuralism.”  Entry in The Oxford Handbook of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Kristen Case and James Finley, forthcoming.

“Higher Law.”  Entry in The Elgar Concise Encyclopedia of Law and Literature, edited by Robert Spoo and Simon Stern, forthcoming 2024.

Book Reviews:

Essay review of D. Berton Emerson and Gregory Laski, eds., Democracies in America: Keywords for the 19th Century and Today (2023), and Cass R. Sunstein, How to Interpret the Constitution (2023).  American Literary History, forthcoming 2024.

Review of Lisa Siraganian, Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Persons (2021).  Modern Fiction Studies 67, no. 4 (2021): pp. 803-06.

Public Audience:        

 “From Quiet Desperation to Quiet Quitting.”  Review of John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle, Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a LivingLos Angeles Review of Books, June 13, 2023.

“From Compromise to New Birth: Lincoln’s Constitution, and Ours.”  Review of Noah Feldman, The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America (2021), and James Oakes, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (2021).  New Rambler Review, March 3, 2022.

“Poetic Justice: Oliver Wendell Holmes’s Life in Law and Letters.”  Review of Stephen Budiansky, Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas (2019).  Los Angeles Review of Books, August 27, 2019.