Skip to main content
Ashley Barnes

Ashley Barnes

Associate Professor — Literature

Professional Preparation

UC-Berkeley - 2012
UNC-Chapel Hill - 2000

Research Areas

Nineteenth-century American literature
Literary ethics
History of literary criticism
Religion & literature


Book Review: Justine S. Murison, Faith in Exposure: Privacy and Secularism in the Nineteenth-Century United States. Transatlantica: Revue d’études américaines / American Studies Journal (2023). 2023 - publications
The Novelist as a Medium: On the Magic Art of The Bostonians. The Henry James Review 42.3 (Fall 2021).  2021 - publications
Book Review: Ashley Reed, Heaven's Interpreters: Women Writers and Religious Agency in Nineteenth-Century America. Studies in the Novel 53.3 (2021). 2021 - publications
Toward an Incarnational Aesthetic: On locating the sublimity of art within the world and within history 2021 - publications
Love and Depth in the American Novel from Stowe to James 2020 - publications
Who's Afraid of Historicizing? How Protestant Anti-historicism Became Literary Self-Defense 2020 - publications
The Cost of Discipleship: Weber's Charisma and the Profession of the Humanities 2020 - publications
Variations on a Melodrama: Imagining the Author in Pierre and Of One Blood 2017 - publications

Additional Information

My work investigates the relationship between sacred and secular reading practices and the porous construction of the line between them. I’m interested in the ideals of otherness, intimacy, and artistry that developed in the crosstalk between religious and literary discourse through 19th- and into 20th-century American culture. Whether they emerged in fictional and popular representations or in theological and literary critical theory, such accounts continue to shape academic standards for what counts as real understanding and what kind of attention is owed to others in the world. 
My current project, Professional Supernaturalism, explores the co-development of secularism and modernist aesthetics as literary criticism professionalized from the late nineteenth into the early twentieth century. The book argues that literary criticism gained its legitimacy in the university by adapting the skillsets of magic and Spiritualism. We often think literary studies turned professional by substituting Shakespeare for the Bible, or by making textual analysis more scientific. Just as importantly, I argue, literary studies claimed a style of uncompelled labor—what I call active passivity—that developed through direct and indirect competition with magicians and mediums. Literary scholars repurposed skills like mind-reading and channeling the dead to suit the academic workplace and transformed those skills into the virtues enshrined by New Criticism and the standards of the American literary canon. Reading through key authors who were both measured and mismeasured by that labor aesthetic--Henry James, Herman Melville, Charles Chesnutt, and Nella Larsen--Professional Supernaturalism rehistoricizes literary studies in the US and finds in those authors a more worldly vision of literary labor that can rehabilitate the discipline’s mandate today.
My first book, Love and Depth in the American Novel from Stowe to James (University of Virginia Press, 2020), seeks to change how we think about the American love story and how we imagine the love of literature. By examining classics of nineteenth-century American literature in the context of Protestant-Catholic interpretive debates, Love and Depth offers a new approach to literary theory that encompasses both New Historicism and the ethical turn in literary studies.