Essays, reviews, & short stories

“Keats at Twenty-Four,” The New Yorker, 11 December 2023
A short story
“Fatal Embracements,” New York Review of Books, 7 December 2023
A review of Tom Crewe’s novel The New Life
“A Pandemic Novel That Never Says ‘Pandemic,’” New York Times Book Review, 13 November 2023
A review of Michael Cunningham’s novel Day
“Pemaquid Lighthouse revisited,” The Atlantic website, 13 August 2023
A poem about getting older while being gay-married
“The Letter,” The Paris Review, summer 2023
A short story
“Lost Letters,” The Paris Review Daily, 21 July 2023
About being haunted by Elizabeth Bowen
“Redux: Raymond Carver,” The Paris Review Newsletter, 25 June 2023
On Raymond Carver and the Pet Shop Boys, eternally
“Murder, Espionage and a Thick Slice of Soviet Life,” New York Times Book Review, 6 June 2023
A review of Paul Goldberg’s novel The Dissident
“The Ellipse Maker,” n+1, spring 2023
A short story
“Sallies,” New York Review of Books, 9 February 2023
A poem
“In the Maid’s Room,” The Yale Review, 24 October 2022
A short story
“Easter,” The New Yorker, 26 September 2022
A short story
“Close Encounters,” The New Yorker, 17 January 2022 (a note on sources)
The Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem’s experience of the Holocaust
“Walks,” The Paris Review, Issue 238, Winter 2021
A short story about dogs and birds
“When the Nation That Shaped You Is Falling Apart,” New York Times Book Review, 2 November 2021
A review of Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim
“Sally Rooney Addresses Her Critics,” The Atlantic, September 2021
A review of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You
“Massachusetts,” The Yale Review, Spring 2021
A short story about two ways of learning
“The Remainder,” n+1, issue 38
A short story about feelings at the end of the world
“Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters,” Public Books, 10 September 2020
An essay about a comic novel about social climbing, written by a nine-year-old and published in 1919
“Trajectory,” The Atlantic, 9 September 2020
A short story about what it feels like to have once been able to fly
“An Accidental Activist,” The New Yorker, 29 June 2020
A review of Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America
“City Limits,” The New Yorker, 27 April 2020 (a note on sources)
A review of David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
“Review: Caleb Crain on Pauline Kerschen,” Book Post, 12 March 2020
A review of Pauline Kerschen’s historical-speculative novel The Warm South, which imagines the life that Keats might have led if he had risen from his deathbed in Rome
“More or Less,” n+1 online only, 15 November 2019
A short story about pretending
“State of the Unions,” The New Yorker, 26 August 2019 (a note on sources)
A review of Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor and Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock: How Low-Wage Work Drives America Insane
“The Theory that Justified Anti-Gay Crime,” Under Review, the New Yorker website, 26 June 2019
A review of James Polchin’s Indecent Advances, a history of the “gay panic” defense
“Idea Man,” New York Review of Books, 27 June 2019
A review of Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of science fiction stories
“A Hunk and a Savant Walk into a Poetry Class…,” New York Times Book Review, 9 June 2019
A review of Lucy Ives’s writing program satire Loudermilk
“‘When Brooklyn Was Queer’ Evokes the Borough’s Hidden History,” New York Times Book Review, 19 May 2019
A review of Hugh Ryan’s history of Brooklyn’s LGBTQI past
“‘Roma’: Through Cuarón’s Intimate Lens,” NYR Daily, the New York Review of Books website, 12 January 2019
Dog poop and the beauty of life
“Mr. Hutchinson,” Harper’s, August 2018
A short story.
“In One City, 2,000 Years of Gay History,” New York Times Book Review, 24 June 2018
A review of Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day
“Why We Don’t Read, Revisited,” Cultural Comment, The New Yorker website, 14 June 2018
A new look at the data on American reading habits, more than a decade after my first investigation
“Merchants of Doom,” The New Yorker, 14 May 2018
A review of Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, Barry Eichengreen’s The Populist Temptation, and Dani Rodrik’s Straight Talk on Trade
“Envoy,” The Paris Review, summer 2017
A short story.
“The Sentimental Sadist,” The Atlantic, March 2017
A review of George Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo
“Ward’s Fool,” n+1, winter 2017
A short story. After the final presidency, a clerk writes.
“On Choosing Trump and Being Bad,” Culture Desk, The New Yorker website, 12 November 2016
In the 2016 election, what was democracy trying to say?
“None of the Above,” The New Yorker, 7 November 2016
A review of Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy
“Peel Her a Grape,” Harper’s, July 2016
An essay about Sybille Bedford, on the occasion of NYRB Books’s re-issue of her work
“A Gay Conspiracy in the Arts?” The Guardian, 7 May 2016
A review of Gregory Woods’s Homintern
“Lost Illusions,” The New Yorker, 18 April 2016
A review of Adam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939
“Head Space,” New York Times Book Review, 20 December 2015
A review of Simon Critchley’s novella Memory Theater
“Further and Farther: A Theory,” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 23 October 2015
“Hardly anyone uses the two words for different occasions,” grumbled H. W. Fowler. But I have an idea.
“Jonathan Franzen Strikes Again,” The Atlantic, September 2015
A review of Franzen’s novel Purity
“Counter Culture: Fighting for Literature in an Age of Algorithms,” Harper’s, July 2015
A new kind of disenchantment has come over literature…
“The Usual Labyrinth,” Subtropics, spring/summer 2015
A short story
“Charlie Hebdo cartoonists: heroes or racists? The answer’s not that simple,” Los Angeles Times, 2 May 2015
What are we disagreeing about, exactly, when we disagree about honoring the controversial French humor magazine?
“Blood in the Sky,” New York Review of Books, 23 April 2015
A review of H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
“Her Struggle: The Reticence of Penelope Fitzgerald,” Harper’s, January 2015
A review of Hermione Lee’s new biography of the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald
“The Red and the Scarlet,” The New Yorker, 30 June 2014
A review of a new biography of Stephen Crane by Paul Sorrentino
“The New York Public Library Comes Around,” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 12 May 2014
The NYPL graciously throws in the towel on its ill-fated Central Library Plan
“How Much Gay Sex Should a Novel Have?” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 22 April 2014
A tour of the question, from Henry James to Alan Hollinghurst
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” The Paris Review Daily, 3 April 2014
How Darren Aronofsky’s Noah gets Biblical vegetarianism wrong
“The Democratic Personality,” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 8 January 2014
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day vs. Mike White’s Enlightened: a sociopolitical reading
“Quitting Time,” Little Star, 2014
A short story
“Four Legs Good: The Life of Jack London,” The New Yorker, 28 October 2013
A review of a new biography by Earle Labor of the author famous for his tales of dogs gone wild
“Copyright Without Law?” The Nation, 21 October 2013
A review of Robert Spoo’s Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain, a history of how James Joyce got paid even though Ulysses lost its copyright
“My Teacher’s Shadow,” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 22 August 2013
A memoir of the Czech translator Peter Kussi, with whom I studied Czech
“Almost History: Plzeň, May 1991,” 21 August 2013
Photos of a celebration, half a century late, of a small Czech city’s liberation by American troops at the end of World War II
“On Memorizing Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone,'” By Heart, an Atlantic blog, 13 August 2013
About the poem’s images and rhythms
“How Soon It May Be Too Late,” New York Times Book Review, 4 August 2013
A review of Robert Wilson’s biography of Mathew Brady
“A Professional Victim: On Ira B. Arnstein,” The Nation, 20 May 2013 (a note on sources)
The adventures of an early-20th-century music-copyright troll
“The Thoreau Poison: Shane Carruth’s ‘Upstream Color,'” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 8 May 2013
A Transcendentalist interpretation of a sci-fi movie about worms, pigs, and the instability of human identity
“Think Your Taxes Are a Pain? Try filing as a gay married couple,” Slate, 10 April 2013
The existential pleasures of being taxed while gay
“What We’re Reading: Charles Williams,” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 14 March 2013.
Satanism, Oxbridge academic publishing, and the Holy Grail, by an Inkling
“Stalker,” The Nation, 4 March 2013
A review of James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked
“Postscript: Aaron Swartz (1986-2013),” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 13 January 2013.
A recollection of the Internet reformer and political activist
“Unfortunate Events,” The New Yorker, 22 October 2012
What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Melville’s Secrets,” Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 14.3 (October 2012): 6–24
Are there esoteric meanings in Melville’s novels and poetry? Is Ishmael the last guest at Diotima’s banquet?
“How Is the Critic Free?” The Paris Review Daily, 4 September 2012
An essay
“Havel’s Specter,” The Nation, 9 April 2012
Václav Havel’s philosophy as manifested in his plays, his essays, and his political career
“An Introduction to A Game of Hide-and-Seek,” 14 February 2012
My introduction to the NYRB Classics reprint of Elizabeth Taylor’s 1951 novel
“Fair and Balanced,” The Nation, 6 February 2012
A review of two recent books on copyright and fair use by William Patry and by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi
“Matt Yglesias Is Wrong About Copyright,” Slate, 27 January 2012. Followed by “Loaves, Fishes, and a Nice Marinara,” 2 February 2012.
A debate about the economics of copyright, piracy, and content generation.
“Pronoun Trouble, The Paris Review Daily, 17 January 2012
On panic attacks and Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings
“Totaling the Ferrari: Ferris Bueller Revisited,” The Paris Review Daily, 26 December 2011.
The rentier class dreams a dream
“I-Phones vs. the Police”, Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 7 December 2011
If the whole world is watching, do we need police?
“The Thief of Time,” The Paris Review Daily, 31 October 2011
Literalizing the exchange-value of labor in Justin Timberlake’s In Time
Why I Signed the Occupy Writers Petition,” Page-Turner, a New Yorker blog, 11 October 2011
On an optimistic moment.
“On Not Letting Go,” The Paris Review Daily, 6 October 2011
Finishing a novel, not finishing it, and reading Samuel Daniel
“Pox: On Contagion,” The Paris Review Daily, 12 September 2011
A Steven Soderbergh movie and the literature of plagues
“Lost in the Meritocracy,” New York Times Book Review, 1 May 2011
A review of Professor X’s In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic
“Tea and Antipathy,” The New Yorker, 20/27 December 2010 (a note on sources)
Was the Tea Party even such a good idea the first time around?
“The Early Literature of New York’s Moneyed Class,” The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, 2010 (a note on sources)
Lifestyles of the rich and famous, 1852 edition
“Down the Rabbit Hole,” The Paris Review Daily, 21 July 2010
The interpretation of dreams according to Christopher Nolan’s Inception
“Ugly Duckling,” The Paris Review Daily, 16 June 2010
The science-fiction movie Splice purports to be about genetics, but it’s really about child-rearing, Melanie Klein–style
“Beer Buddies,” Bookforum, February/March 2010
A review of Richard Stott’s “Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in 19th-Century America”
“Terms of Infringement,” The National (Abu Dhabi), 21 January 2010
A review of Adrian Johns’s “Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates”
“Semantic Time Travel,” New York Times Magazine, 10 January 2010
On the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
“Against Camel Case,” New York Times Magazine, 29 November 2009 (blog notebook)
A polemic, attacking the corporate practice of capitalizing letters inside compound words
“Keats Speaks,” New York Times Magazine, 1 November 2009 (reporter’s notebook)
Did the real Keats talk the way the one in Jane Campion’s movie does?
“A Very Different Pakistan,” New York Review of Books, 5 November 2009 (reporter’s notebook)
A review of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short story collection “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”
“It Happened One Decade,” The New Yorker, 21 September 2009 (related blog posts on Nathanael West and James Agee)
The arts during the Great Depression
“Bootylicious,” The New Yorker, 7 September 2009 (reporter’s notebook)
The anarchy and economics of the pirates of the Caribbean
“Nice Work If You Can Get It,” The National (Abu Dhabi), 2 July 2009
A review of Matthew B. Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft”
“Toil and Trouble,” New York Times Book Review, 28 June 2009
A review of Alain de Botton’s “Sorrows and Pleasures of Work”
“Brother, Can You Spare a Room?” New York Times Book Review, 29 March 2009
On a reprint of a satiric 1857 guide to boardinghouse life in New York, featuring drunken landladies and snoring bedmates
“Random Facts of Kindness,” The National (Abu Dhabi), 27 February 2009
Historian Barbara Taylor and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips collaborate on a description and defense of kindness
“There Was Blood,” The New Yorker, 19 January 2009 (reporter’s notebook). Rpt. in The Energy Reader, ed. Laura Nader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
Two new books on the 1913-14 Colorado coalminers’ strike that led to the Ludlow Massacre
“Children of the Left, Unite!” New York Times Book Review, 11 January 2009
Socialism has been trickling into the ears of American youth for a century
“Pixies, Sheilas, Dirtbags and Cougar Bait,” The Nation, 29 December 2008
Notes on slang
“Good at Being Gods,” London Review of Books, 18 December 2008 (reporter’s notebook)
Buckminster Fuller, Stewart Brand, solar panels, windmills, Jimmy Carter, and the return of ecology as a business model
“A World of a Different Color,” New York Times Book Review, 30 November 2008 (reporter’s notebook)
A review of Ann Norton Greene’s Horses at Work
“Lonely Together,” The National (Abu Dhabi), 31 October 2008
A review of two books on loneliness, one scientific and one politico-philosophical
“English, the Omnivorous Tongue,” New York Sun, 4 September 2008
A review of Henry Hitchings’s “The Secret Life of Words”
“In Praise of Spiders,” London Review of Books, 11 September 2008
On Wilkie Collins’s novel “The Woman in White” and the art of training human beings to submit to your nefarious wishes
“Move Closer, Please,” New York Review of Books, 1 May 2008 (reporter’s notebook)
The history of the snapshot in America, and how it became art
“Twilight of the Books,” The New Yorker, 24 December 2007 (reporter’s notebook; en español; en français). Rpt. in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, ed. Clive Thompson (University of Michigan Press, 2008).
How the decline of reading may alter the social world
“Sweet Grafton,” n+1, Winter 2007-08
A novella
“There She Blew,” The New Yorker, 23 July 2007 (reporter’s notebook)
The rise and fall of U.S. whaling, and the truth about sperm-squeezing
“The Miracle Woman,” New York Review of Books, 19 July 2007 (reporter’s notebook)
The mysterious disappearance and continuing legacy of early 20th-century radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson
“The Good Boy; or, Is Christ Necessary?” Published on this blog, April 2007.
A review of Dean Grodzins’s biography of the Transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker
“Bad Precedent,” The New Yorker, 29 January 2007 (reporter’s notebook)
Andrew Jackson, habeas corpus, and the War of 1812
“Mother of Exiles,” New York Times Book Review, 31 December 2006
Review of “Emma Lazarus,” by Esther Schor
“The Courtship of Henry Wikoff; or, A Spinster’s Apprehensions,” American Literary History, Winter 2006
How a con man kidnapped an heiress, went to jail, and turned his adventure into a best-seller
“Surveillance Society: The Mass-Observation Movement and the Meaning of Everyday Life,” The New Yorker, 11 September 2006 (reporter’s notebook)
How a poet, a filmmaker, and an anthropologist convinced 1930s Britain to observe and document itself
“Academic Criticism,” n+1, Spring 2006
How single-author criticism resembles music fandom, or ought to
“Reverie on a Breeze,” Boston Globe, 6 August 2006
On a sleepless night, thinking of literature when the electric fan fails
“The Terror Last Time,” The New Yorker, 13 March 2006 (reporter’s notebook)
What really happened in Chicago’s Haymarket in 1886?
“Rail-Splitting,” The New Yorker, 7 November 2005
A review of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals
“The Murder of Lucy Pollard,” The New York Review of Books, 15 July 2004
A review of Suzanne Lebsock’s A Murder in Virginia and Ann Field Alexander’s Race Man
“Approaching Infinity,” Boston Globe, October 2003 (blog supplement). Rpt. in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, ed. Stephen J. Burn (University Press of Mississippi, 2012).
An interview with David Foster Wallace about writing novels, riding the Green Line, and higher math
An introduction to Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive (Modern Library Classics, 2002)
An essay introducing a comic American novel from 1797 about a Yankee schoolteacher sold into slavery
An introduction to Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (Modern Library Classics, 2002)
An essay introducing one of America’s first Gothic novels
“In Search of Lost Crime,” Legal Affairs, 1.2 (July/August 2002): 28-33
Bloated bodies, bigamous love, drunk stenographers, and other literary pleasures of the 19th-century trial transcript
“A Star Is Born,” The New York Review of Books, 23 May 2002
On Margaret Fuller’s letters and journalism
“The Undertaker’s Art, Exhumed,” The Nation, 11 April 2002
A review of several novels by L. P. Hartley
“The Artistic Animal,” Lingua Franca, October 2001
The self-made scholar Ellen Dissanayake links evolution and the arts
“The Monarch of Dreams,” The New Republic 224 (28 May 2001), pp. 41-48
On the fantasy life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, abolitionist and Emily Dickinson’s friend
“The Seeded Self,” The New Republic, 27 March 2000
A review of Bradley P. Dean’s edition of Wild Fruits by Henry David Thoreau
“Infidelity: Milan Kundera Is on the Outs with His Translators, but Who’s Betraying Whom?” Lingua Franca, October 1999
After years of feuding with his translators, Kundera began not only retranslating his novels but also rewriting them.
“Did a Germ Make You Gay?” Out magazine, August 1999
Is homosexuality something you catch?
“What I Have to Say about Queer Theory,” Remarks at the New York Association of Scholars for Reasoned Discourse in a Free Society, 18 September 1998
A (somewhat dated) primer on queer theory, as well as an argument that it was a wrong turn
“The Bard’s Fingerprints” (PDF), Lingua Franca, July/August 1998
Donald Foster uses high-powered computer tests to search for Shakespeare’s hidden hand. His critics challenge him on every move.
“Frank O’Hara’s ‘Fired’ Self,” American Literary History 9.2 (1997): 287-308
Reading O’Hara’s poems in light of the psychology of D. W. Winnicott
“Pleasure Principles: Queer Theorists and Gay Journalists Wrestle Over the Politics of Gay Sex,” Lingua Franca, October 1997
An account of the controversy surrounding the academic group Sex Panic
“Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville’s Novels,” American Literature 66.1 (March 1994): 25–53
The unspeakable things that can happen in a boat