William A. Cohen



2119B Tawes Hall


William A. Cohen is professor of English and chair of the department. His scholarship and teaching focus on literature and culture of the Victorian period; the history of sexuality, the body, and the senses; and literary theory. He has published articles in such journals as PMLA, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Nineteenth-Century Literature, ELH, and South Atlantic Quarterly, as well as three books. The first, Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction (Duke University Press, 1996), investigates nineteenth-century British novels and newspaper scandals. It argues that the unspeakable status of sexuality affords writers an opportunity to develop a complex discourse—richly ambiguous, subtly coded, prolix and polyvalent—now designated by the term “literary.” This book was supported by a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Wesleyan University and received widespread attention in the scholarly and popular press when it was published.


His second book, Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (co-edited with Ryan Johnson, University of Minnesota Press, 2005), is an anthology of a dozen interdisci­plin­ary essays focused on London and Paris of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It proposes that the rejection of filth serves crucial functions of social management and identity formation, bringing together practices that designate some people (the poor, the foreign, the immoral) as dirty and therefore dangerous; psychological experiences of disgust and sometimes pleasurable defilement; and the phenomenology of perception. Work on this project was awarded a residential fellowship from the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.


Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) offers a new approach to discussions of human embodiment in literary and cultural studies. Rather than regarding the bodily exterior as the primary location in which identity categories (such as gender, sexuality, race, and disability) are expressed, Embodied focuses on the interior experience of sensation, whereby these politics come to be felt. Drawing on the phenomenological tradition of Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and Guattari, and Bataille, the book charts a materialist thesis through works by Victorian writers who ceased to identify human nature with an ethereal soul or spirit, and instead presented the essence of the human as an effect of the body.


Professor Cohen is currently at work on “Intermediate French: British Literature from the July Monarchy to the Dreyfus Affair,” which considers the affective dimensions of the French language—especially when incompletely mastered—in works by English-speaking authors. One section, “Wilde’s French,” has been published in Wilde Discoveries: Traditions, Histories, Archives (University of Toronto Press, 2013), and others have been presented at the North American Victorian Studies Association, at the Dickens Bicentenary conference in Paris, Boulogne, Chatham, and London, at the CUNY Graduate Center Victorian symposium, and at other venues. This research has been supported by grants from the William Andrews Clark and Huntington libraries. “Arborealities: The Tactile Ecology of Hardy’s Woodlanders,” was presented as a keynote at the Victorian Tactile Imagination conference (Birkbeck College, University of London) and the Northeast Victorian Studies Association, and is forthcoming in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Professor Cohen received the Faculty Service Award from the Graduate English Organization in 2012 and currently serves on the executive committee of the Victorian Division of the Modern Language Association.



Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley
B.A., Swarthmore College

Area Groups

Film Studies and Cultural Studies; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies; Literary Theory; Post-1900 British and Irish; Victorian

Recent Publications

Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (University of Minnesota Press, 2009); selected reviews: Nineteenth-Century Literature, Victorian Studies, Studies in English Literature, Senses and Society, Configurations.

Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life, edited with Ryan Johnson (University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction (Duke University Press, 1996).



Wilde Discoveries: Traditions, Histories, Archives

Cambridge Companion to Anthony Trollope

Novel: A Forum on Fiction


Critical Survey

Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Nineteenth-Century Literature



South Atlantic Quarterly

Victorian Studies

The Queer Sixties


Selected Presentations:

Victorian Seminar, Graduate Center, City University of New York (October 2014)

Victorian Literature and Culture Seminar, Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University (November 2014)

Plenary, Northeast Victorian Studies Association (2014)

Plenary, The Victorian Tactile Imagination, Birkbeck College, University of London (2013)

Plenary, Bodies Incorporated symposium, Texas A&M University (2012)

Dickens Bicentenary conference, Paris, Boulogne, Chatham/Rochester, London (2012)

Victorianopolis symposium, Graduate Center, CUNY (2012)

University of Toronto, Birkbeck College/University of London, University of Exeter, UCLA, West Virginia University (Jackson Distinguished Lecture), University at Buffalo/SUNY (2009-10)

Plenary, British Association for Victorian Studies Conference, “Victorian Feeling: Touch, Bodies, Emotions,” University of Leicester (2008)

Theories of the Novel Now (2007)

Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, Texas A&M University (2006)

North American Victorian Studies Association Conference (2013, 2005)

Keynote, Dickens and Sex Conference, Birkbeck College, University of London (2004)

MLA Convention (1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2008)


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Honors and Awards

Faculty Service Award, Graduate English Organization (2012); William Andrews Clark and Huntington Library fellowships (2009); General Research Board Semester Research Award (2005); Center for Teaching Excellence Instructional Improvement Grant (2003); Camargo Foundation, Cassis, France (2000); Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship, Wesleyan University (1994-95).

Spring 2014

ENGL456 The Nineteenth-Century English Novel

Spring 2011

ENGL739A Theory of the Novel and Victorian Fiction