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Dr Peter Riley

Senior Lecturer in American Literature


01392 725300

Peter Riley's research examines nineteenth- through early twentieth-century American literature in relation to labour history, poetry and poetics, and archival studies, with developing focuses on German American literature, abolitionist politics, and race and ethnicity in the United States. He also writes non-fiction, and is particulalry interested in the relationship between creative and critical prose.

His most recent book Strandings: Confessions of a Whale Scavenger won the Ideas Prize for Non-Fiction. An experimental memoir, the book explores his involvement in one of Britain’s most bizarre subcultures: each time a whale washes up on our shores, a fugitive community of human scavengers descends to claim its trophies. Some are driven by magical beliefs; some are motivated by profit. For others, the need is much stranger. Mixing natural history, conspiracy theory, politics, and gore, Strandings was described by Iain Sinclair as “a brave, reckless and engaging performance”, and by Jean Sprackland as a “glorious rollercoaster of a book, whose twists and turns take us again and again to the dissolving edges between reality and mirage.” 

His first academic monograph, Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry was published by Oxford University Press in 2019. It explores how the poetry of Whitman the real estate dealer, Melville the customs inspector, and Hart Crane the advertising copywriter complicates an assumed divide between the work of poetry and other “lesser” or contingent forms of labour. Ousting poetic production from its default sanctuary of exemption and repose, the book recasts poetic work as a living sensuous activity that transgresses labour’s variously entrenched divisions and hierarchies.

He is currently editing Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for the Oxford World’s Classics series (forthcoming 2023), and working on two further books: a popular history of fossil hunting, and a project provisionally entitled Another Language/Another America: The German-American Renaissance 1848-1871 (for which he was recently awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship). In collaboration with Preston Street Films, Peter is also making a radio documentary based on Strandings, which is due to air on BBC Radio 4 next year. 


Peter (re-) joined Exeter after spending two years as Associate Professor in Poetry and Poetics at Durham University. Before that, between 2014-2020, he was Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in American Literature at Exeter. Before that he was an Early Career Fellow in American Literature at Oxford. 

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