Joel Pfister is the Olin Professor of English and American Studies (previously he served as Kenan Professor of the Humanities). Pfister has written The Production of Personal Life: Class, Gender, and the Psychological in Hawthorne’s Fiction (Stanford University Press, 1991); Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse (University of North Carolina Press, 1995, Choice “Best Academic Books of 1995” award); Individuality Incorporated: Indians and the Multicultural Modern (Duke University Press, 2004); Critique for What? Cultural Studies, American Studies, Left Studies (Routledge, 2006); The Yale Indian: The Education of Henry Roe Cloud (Duke University Press, 2009); and Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2016). He is also the co-editor of Inventing the Psychological: Toward a Cultural History of Emotional Life in America (Yale University Press, 1997). And he has published articles or reviews in numerous journals, including American Literary History, American Literature, American Quarterly, Journal of American Studies (England), Comparative American Studies (England), Yale Journal of Criticism, Novel, American Historical Review, Reviews in American History, Bulletin of the Hawthorne Society of Japan, Forum (Japan), Studies in Linguistics and Literature (China, translated into Chinese), Journal of English and Germanic Philology, and Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences.
While undertaking his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale, much of his training was in visual studies (film studies, architecture, art, material culture, photography). The book he is now immersed in writing on movies and social change returns him full-time to this abiding passion.
In his scholarship and teaching he has tried to conceptualize and advance three interconnected fields of study: 1) the history of emotional life, interiority, and the cultural formation of subjectivities (with a special focus on ideologies of “individuality” and the family); 2) the transnational (particularly Anglo-American) history and political significance of cultural studies, American Studies, and Left critique; and 3) the framing of literature and movies not just as ideological symptoms but as critical resources that have helped make possible and enrich cultural analysis. Also, having experienced his formative schooling as what is now labeled a “low-income student,” Pfister has long had a keen interest in exploring the innovative ways in which an Americanized capitalism—often simply advertised as “democracy” and “equality”—often downplays class identity yet reproduces class stratification (his two books on American “Indians,” for instance, are unusual in their fusion of the analysis of ethnoracialization and class identity formation).
Currently, he teaches a range of cultural studies courses in American movies (the 1930s to the present) and entertainment (song lyrics, graphic history), American literature, and American drama.
Over the past decade or so he has served as chair of the American Studies Department (twice) and chair of the English Department. As chair, in English he played a key role in establishing the English Department Lecture Series and in American Studies he was a major contributor to the development of the Richard Slotkin American Studies Lecture Series.
Professor Pfister has received several fellowships, such as an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, a Rockefeller fellowship (in residence at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy), and a Mellon fellowship.
Since doing his M.A. in American Studies at the University of London, Pfister has been convinced that to better understand what the U.S. was and is, what impact the U.S. has had and has on the world, and the ways in which the U.S. has sought to Americanize Americans, it is instructive to leave and to a degree “unlearn” the U.S. for periods. Striving to gain some transnational perspectives, he has lectured in China, Japan, Israel, England, Ireland, Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, and Italy as well as Canada and the United States. Pfister was Visiting Professor of North American Studies in the John F. Kennedy Institute of North American Studies in the Graduate School of the Freie Universität in Berlin in 2011 and co-taught a graduate seminar in Critical Theory while continuing his research. In July 2012, he served as Lecturer of American Studies on the faculty of the West-China Faculty Enhancement Program in American Studies, co-sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the China Association for the Study of American Literature, and taught college and university professors from West China and Tibet American literature-as-American Studies in Xi’an, China (the program was based in Northwest University). In Spring 2018, he taught graduate seminars in American literature and culture as Visiting Professor of Anglophone Studies at the Université de Caen Normandie in France. And in Spring 2019, Pfister is serving as Visiting Professor of the Humanities at the Università degli Studi di Macerata on Italy’s Adriatic coast and is teaching an American Studies graduate seminar and conducting research on his book-in-progress.