Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen (UCLA) is an associate professor in the Department of English at UCLA. He teaches and studies the literature of the transatlantic nineteenth century, especially poetry between roughly the 1790s and the 1890s, in the US, but also across the broader English-speaking world. He is most interested in the ways that people used poems: the means by which they received and circulated them (via books, broadsides, letters, oral recitation, and so on), the reading practices that made up their encounters with them (memorization, group reading, singing), and the theories of genre and media that informed the way they understood poems.

Cohen’s first book, The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America, draws together many of these interests in the material history of literary culture. His new study is a speculative investigation into the relationships between historical practices of reading, literary traditions and the history of literariness, and contemporary critical theory and methods, focusing on the US before 1900. To that end, he is working with a large archive of readers and their readings, in an effort to reimagine American literature from the perspective of readers rather than authors.  For Cohen, the study of readers’ canons allow for a more fluid approach to early national literature, while they also demand a much closer attention to the roles of poems in the earlier Atlantic world.

Cohen’s “Learning in Verse: Poetry and Mass Education in America” is an overview of a research project examining how poetry became a scholastic subject in the US, in the years between the 1840s and the 1940s.  It considers how and why students in primary and secondary schools were taught how to read and write poetry as a major part of their education. The project considers the US public schools as key sites in the creation of new concepts of literature, the literary canon, and literary value, and it analyzes in detail the roles that poetry played in the increasing systematization of public education during the Progressive Era, a period marked by both curricular and institutional innovations as well as the entrenchment of segregated schooling.


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