Paul Outka

Paul Outka
  • Associate Professor

Contact Info

Wescoe Hall, Room 3022


I started my scholarly career as a poetry critic, writing a dissertation and several articles on Whitman, and teaching a range of courses on American poetry from its origins through the present day.  While my scholarship has become less structured by genre, I retain an emphasis on close reading and a profound, if often critical, engagement with poetry and literary modes of representation in all my writing.

As my work has developed, I have focused my attention less on particular authors for their own sake, and more on how a range of political, theoretical, and historical problems have been refracted through literary and other forms of cultural representation.  My first book, Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance, examines a neglected but centrally important issue in critical race studies and ecocriticism: how natural experience became racialized in America from the antebellum period through the early twentieth century.  Drawing on theories of sublimity, trauma, and ecocriticism, I offer a critical and cultural history of the racial fault line in American environmentalism that to this day divides largely white wilderness preservation groups and the largely minority environmental justice movement. The book argues that “sublimity” and “trauma” name two racially marked outcomes of a structurally similar natural experience: a potent moment in which the division between the human and the natural becomes unstable.  For white Americans, such moments generally resolve according to the template of the Romantic sublime; the subject emerges fundamentally empowered by his or her identification with the sublime object.  For African Americans, by contrast, such moments of instability have often proven violently reductive, in a repeated and degrading association of the subject with the nonhuman natural environment.  Indeed, the conflation of blackness and nature served as the principal “justification” for chattel slavery in antebellum America, and such conflations persist at the heart of most American racist ideologies. 

This interest in the history of the mostly unhappy intersection between racial and natural experience has extended into a long essay I’m currently working on—or a short book, we’ll see!—tentatively entitled “Western Landscapes and the Dreamwork of Whiteness,” that looks at the ways western environmental experience has been deployed to repress the 19th century history of eastern racial trauma with a particular focus on Owen Wister’sThe Virginian.

I am now deeply engaged with another book project, Evolution, Essentialism, and the Organic Sublime: the Nineteenth-Century Posthuman, a work that builds on Race and Nature’sconcern with materialism, embodied identity, and ecocriticism.  The book argues that in the nineteenth-century transatlantic culture of Europe and the United States, a range of discourses—medical, evolutionary, chemical, environmental, literary—began to suggest that human identity was physical rather than spiritual, a particularly complex expression of the natural.  Humans became a part of the earth that learned to talk, not Beings who transcended the earthly.  In the book I examine a range of episodes I call the “organic sublime,” when an individual experienced a sudden and often profoundly disconcerting awareness of the radical material identity between his or her embodied self and the natural world.  This constitutive similarity between self and world, I argue, was akin to what contemporary theorists of biotechnology call the “posthuman,” the sense of being a mechanism among mechanisms, of a profound materialist ambiguity (if not, indeed, crisis) in the relations among self, body, technology, and environment.  The experience of the organic sublime was often deeply disturbing, both to the subject immediately involved and to the wider ideological formations prevalent in the nineteenth century that depended on a disjunctive relationship between human and nature, particularly essentializing discourses of identity such as racial “science,” social Darwinism, and the medicalization of gender.  Such discourses, I argue, functioned in part to reestablish qualitative differences between (some) humans and the natural, and thereby to deaden the shock of the eruptive nineteenth-century posthuman.  A version of the first chapter of this book was just published in Routledge’s 2011 Environmental Criticism for the 21st Century. 

My interests in evolution and scientific materialism extend into the 20th and 21st century as well.  I recently published an essay, for example on the implications of a possible pharmacological cure for PTSD and am working on a second essay about enhancement technologies, and I offer courses on posthuman theory and biotechnology that stretch from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to contemporary scientific speculations on the ramifications of emergent biotechnologies, to recent science fiction.


19thC U.S. literature and culture, literature and science, American poetry, African American literature.Theoretical foci include ecocriticism, critical race theory, trauma studies, aesthetic theory, and the posthuman.

Selected Publications

Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance.New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


“Posthuman/Postnatural: Ecocriticism and the Sublime in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century: Science, History, Scale. Stephanie
Lemenager, Ken Hiltner, and Teresa Shewry, eds. New York: Routledge. Forthcoming.

“History, the Posthuman, and the End of Trauma: Propranolol and Beyond.”Traumatology.
15.4 (2009) 76–81.

“(De)composing Whitman.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment,
12.1 (2005) 41-60.

“Whitman and Race (‘he’s queer, he’s unclear, get used to it…’).” Journal of American
Studies, 36 (2002) 293-318.

“Publish or Perish: Food, Hunger, and Self-Construction in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The
Woman Warrior.”Contemporary Literature, 38 (1997) 447-82.Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 114, Gale-Centage, 2002.Rpt. in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 136, Gale-Cengage, Forthcoming, 2010.

Awards & Honors

Winner of the 2009 Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment
(ASLE) Biennial Prize for “Best Book of Ecocriticism” published in 2007-08. 
University of Maine Trustee Professorship, 2007-08.
American Council of Learned Societies/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship for Junior Faculty, 2004-05.
University Honors Faculty. University of Maine at Farmington, 2003-07.
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertation Fellowship. University of Virginia, 1999-2000.
Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award. Department of English, University of Virginia, 1994-95.