Phillip Maciak

Senior Lecturer in English and American Culture Studies
PhD, University of Pennsylvania
MA, University of Virginia
BA, Amherst College
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    contact info:

    office hours:

    • Wednesday 11:30-1:00, or by appointment

    mailing address:

    • Washington University
    • CB 1122
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    Phillip Maciak’s scholarly research begins at the places where literature, religion, and visual media meet in nineteenth-century America, and his public writing focuses on the idiosyncratic role of television in our lives today.

    Maciak’s work explores the convergence between literature, visual media, and religious popular culture, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the U.S. His first book, The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press) focuses on the emergence of cinema—alongside the literary and visual cultures that anticipated and contextualized it—and its outsize impact on the way Americans were able to conceptualize the blurry line between sacred and secular at the turn of the twentieth century. Exploring works by Herman Melville, Lew Wallace, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, F. Holland Day, and W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as rarely-seen early Passion Play Films, The Disappearing Christ assembles a diverse set of witnesses to life in a secular age. His essays and reviews have been published in J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, PMLA, Adaptation, Film Quarterly, and the American Literature in Transition series at Cambridge University Press. He’s currently at work on a second project about American creation myths at the turn of the twentieth century tentatively entitled, Eureka: U.S. Culture and the Creation of the World.

    Maciak is also a cultural critic and co-editor (with Lili Loofbourow) of the PMLA special section, “The Semipublic Intellectual: Academia, Criticism, and the Internet Age” (2015). His essays on television and film have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other national venues, and he is the TV editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books where he regularly contributes to the “Dear Television” column.

    In the English department, he has taught courses on “The Great American Novel,” “Literature and Photography,” and “Literature and Celebrity,” as well as the pre-requisite course, “Modern Texts and Contexts.” He also holds an appointment in American Culture Studies, where he is a major advisor and a member of the Visual and Material Culture Seminar. In AMCS, he’s taught “The Visible and the Invisible: Introduction to American Visual Culture Studies” and “Hot Takes: Cultural Criticism in the Digital Age.”

    Recent Courses

    L14 E Lit 302 / “The Great American Novel”

    What is the Great American Novel? This is a question that has been hotly debated for decades, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner to Toni Morrison. It's a question with a hundred answers and no answers at all-a question of taste, of prejudice, of time. But what is a "Great American Novel"? What does it look like? What do we expect of it? What have Americans throughout history wanted it to say about America? These are questions we can, and will, answer in this course. As elusive a thing as the Great American Novel has been, the idea of the Great American Novel has a long and fascinating history that mirrors all the major movements of American literature from the American Renaissance to the present. Piecing together the story of this dream, this cultural quest with all of its inclusions and exclusions, is a way of telling a shadow history of American society. The Great American Novel tradition is something like a fossil record of America's shifting norms in relation to race, gender, sexuality, domesticity, democracy, citizenship, immigration, labor, capitalism, and war. And so each presumptive Great American Novel is a new variation in an evolving genre and a new thesis statement of American grandiosity or guilt. By cataloguing shared themes, conventions, and preoccupations, and by paying close attention to a handful of likely-and unlikely-candidates, this course will big questions about American exceptionalism, American tragedy, and the role of art in American culture. Authors will likely include Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Satisfies the Twentieth Century and later requirement.

      L14 E Lit 166 / “A Star is Born: Literature and Celebrity”

      It's easy to imagine literature as a hermetically-sealed art form, functioning outside, above, or beyond the petty, gossipy flows of popular culture. But the culture of celebrity has long been both a subject and spark for literary writers. This course tracks the long, intertwined history of fame and literary production from the eighteenth century to the present, Lord Byron to Kim Kardashian. We'll read novels and poems about celebrity, learn about literary celebrities both immortal and forgotten, and study the ways in which the emergence of various media (from print to photography to film and television and social media) have forced literary writers to reckon with the type of visibility that fame bestows on the famous. Course is for first-year, non-transfer students only

        Selected Publications

        The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2019.)

        “The Televisual Novel,” in American Literature in Transition, 2000-2010, ed. Rachel Greenwald Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

        “’A Rare and Wonderful Sight’: Secularism and Visual Historiography in Ben-Hur,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, 3.2 (2015): 249-275.

        The Time of the Semipublic Intellectual,” with Lili Loofbourow, PMLA, 130.2 March 2015.

        Kill the Leading Man: Two Histories of 21st Century Television,” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 2013.

        “Spectacular Realism: The Ghost of Jesus Christ in D.W. Griffith’s Vision of History,” Adaptation, Volume 5, Issue 2, September 2012.

        The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era

        The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era

        At the turn of the twentieth century, American popular culture was booming with opportunities to see Jesus Christ. From the modernized eyewitness gospel of Ben-Hur to the widely circulated passion play films of Edison, Lumière, and Pathé; from D. W. Griffith’s conjuration of a spectral white savior in Birth of a Nation to W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Black Christ” story cycle, Jesus was constantly and inventively visualized across media, and especially in the new medium of film. Why, in an era traditionally defined by the triumph of secular ideologies and institutions, were so many artists rushing to film Christ’s miracles and use his story and image to contextualize their experiences of modernity?

        In The Disappearing Christ, Phillip Maciak examines filmic depictions of Jesus to argue that cinema developed as a model technology of secularism, training viewers for belief in a secular age. Negotiating between the magic trick and the documentary image, the conflicting impulses of faith and skepticism, the emerging aesthetic of film in this period visualized the fraught process of secularization. Cinematic depictions of an appearing and disappearing Christ became a powerful vehicle for Americans to navigate a rapidly modernizing society. Studying these films alongside a multimedia, interdisciplinary archive of novels, photographs, illustrations, and works of theology, travel writing, and historiography, The Disappearing Christ offers a new narrative of American cultural history at the intersection of cinema studies and religious studies.