Deborah Nelson

Deborah Nelson
Department Chair, Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of English and the College
Walker 413A
Ph.D., City University of New York, 1996
Teaching at UChicago since 1996


My field is late twentieth-century U.S. culture and politics, what is known in shorthand as Post45 or Post War (to the confusion of many: which war?). I also am a founding member of the Post45 collective, which publishes an online journalPost45and a book series atStanford University Press. My interests in the field include American poetry, novels, essays, and plays; gender and sexuality studies; photography; autobiography and confessional writing; American ethnic literature; poetry and poetics; and Cold War history. I have been working recently on the immediate postwar moment, @1948, on which topic I and three colleagues ran a year-long, interdisciplinary Sawyer Seminar sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. My colleague Leela Gandhi and I co-edited a selection of papers presented in the seminar in a special issue of Critical Inquiry. In the fall of 2018, James Sparrow in the Department of History and I will curate an exhibit from the holdings of the Smart Museum on the @1948 moment.

This past spring my book, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, was published by the University of Chicago Press. Tough Enough focuses on these six women who are aligned with no single tradition but whose work coheres in a style and philosophical viewpoint that derives from a shared attitude toward suffering. What Mary McCarthy called a “cold eye” was not merely a personal aversion to displays of emotion: it was an unsentimental mode of attention that dictated both ethical positions and aesthetic approaches. Tough Enough challenges the pre-eminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain. My first book, Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America, examined the discourse of privacy beginning with its emergence asa topic of intense anxiety in the late 1950s. Pairing landmark Supreme Court decisions on the right to privacy with the investigation of privacy and private life in the work of the confessional poets, the book takes up these two discourses for their particularly subtle investigation of the language of privacy as the concept evolved over the next decades.


  • Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, University of Chicago Press, April 2017.
  • Around 1948” with Leela Gandhi a special issue of Critical Inquiry, Summer 2014.
  • "Confessional Poetry," Cambridge Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry, ed. Jennifer Ashton, forthcoming.
  • "Introduction: Twentieth-Century Poetry: Expanding Archives and Methods," PMLA, Vol. 127, No. 2, March 2012.
  • "The Virtues of Heartlessness: Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and the Anaesthetics of Empathy," American Literary History, Winter 2006.
  • "Sylvia Plath and the Cold War" in the Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath, edited by Jo Gill, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Guest Editor, Special Issue of WSQ "Gender and Culture in the 1950s," Dec. 2005.
  • "Suffering and Thinking: The Scandal of Tone in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem" in Compassion, edited by Lauren Berlant for the English Institute, Routledge Press, 2004.
  • Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America, Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • "Beyond Privacy: Confessions Between a Woman and Her Doctor," Feminist Studies, Summer 1999.
  • "Penetrating Privacy: Confessional Poetry and the Surveillance Society," Home/Making: The Poetics and Politics of Home, edited by Catherine Wiley and Fiona Barnes.


2017-2018 Courses: Autumn 2017, Ph.D Colloquium (graduate), The Nuclear Age (undergraduate)

Graduate: Culture of Cold War; Law, Literature, and Sexual Revolution; Post-Modern Autobiography; Shock Treatments and Nervous Systems; Traumatic Cosmopolitanism: Around 1948 (co-taught with James Sparrow)

Undergraduate: Media Aesthetics; New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel; Postwar U.S. Literature; Transatlantic Intimacies

Subject Area: American Literature