Life Writing: Literary Biographies from the English Program

April 27, 2023

By Emma Deshpande

Students, alumni, and faculty discuss what they learned in the process of chronicling an author’s life.

Covers of Memorias de Miguel, Mina Loy: Apology of Genius, Walt Whitman's America, and Elizabeth Bowen: A Literary Life against a blue background
Four English students, alumni, and faculty examine writers' lives.

The CUNY Graduate Center Ph.D. Program in English is home to hundreds of talented faculty, students, and alumni who write and edit academic and pedagogical texts, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. In our Monthly English Books Roundup series, we will highlight their accomplishments.

This April, we celebrate life writing by our students, alumni, and faculty who are examining the work and lives of novelists and poets. Read on to learn more about these literary lives and about forthcoming works from our program affiliates!

Are you a member of the English program with a recent or forthcoming book? Let us know!

Student Publications


Memorias de Miguel: The Hard Work of Love edited by Lois Elaine Griffith, Karen Jaime, and Joseph A. Cáceres (October 2022, Hemispheric Institute)

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Book cover of Memorias de Miguel next to headshot of Joseph Caceres with books in the background

Joseph A. Cáceres is a Ph.D. candidate whose work focuses on queer American artists of African and Caribbean descent. He is currently working on several projects revolving around the unpublished works of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s queer founders.


Have you discovered anything about these poets in your research that was unexpected?

Working with Lois Elaine Griffith, the last surviving founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and her Nuyorican Poets Cafe Founders Archive Project, I didn’t expect to learn just how central the Cafe was, as a cultural institution, to American letters. Conducting oral histories with people who have knowledge about the cafe’s inception and legacy, the list of writers—and I’m not even including the actors, visual artists, dancers, singers, musicians, costume designers, etc., — that have a connection with, or got their start at, the cafe; and had outstanding relationships and friendships with its founders is long. And it always amazes me. Another connection I found exciting and unexpected when I learned of it was the friendship between Miguel Algarín (co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe) and Toni Morrison. Knowing that these two literary giants were in communion, I now can’t unsee the parallels between their work. Especially their concepts of love. Reading Miguel Algarín’s poetry in concert with Morrison’s novels has only enriched both of their works for me. And it has opened avenues to explore and broaden an understanding of the profound connections between the artists involved in the Nuyorican arts movement with other artists and cultural movements on the American scene. 

What do you hope readers learn from your research?

Since my work is grounded within the communities that I serve and am a part of, one of the goals of my research is to inspire people from these communities to take their actions and movements throughout life as something worthy of documentation. This is vital because I consider much of the archival research I do with Lois as part of a recovery project. Much of the academic work on the Lower East Side poetry scene of the latter half of the 20th century is revisionist scholarship that whitewashes the significant contributions of artists of Latinx, African, Caribbean, and Asian descent. And if Lois hadn’t collected and preserved the materials that documented so much of the history that reflects the movement and work of those people in the diaspora, many of the elisions that plague (and are constitutive to the formation of) American culture would be lost to history. 

What are you working on next?

I am currently working on three Lost & Found issues on Lois’ poetics, visual artwork, and cultural/archival work. This project is also informing the dissertation I am also working on right now, which, in part, looks at the importance of studying Nuyorican archives as an attempt to dismantle and resist the colonial matrix of power.  

Alumni Publications


Elizabeth Bowen: A Literary Life by Patricia Laurence (December 2019, Springer Link)

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Cover of Elizabeth Bowen: A Literary Life next to headshot of Patricia Laurence with window and plants in background

Patricia Laurence (Ph.D. ’89, English) is a literary critic, biographer, poet, and professor emerita of English at The City University of New York. She has written widely on Virginia Woolf, transnational Modernism, Bloomsbury, contemporary novelists, modernist women writers, Republican-era Chinese literature, and biography.

Did you discover anything about Elizabeth Bowen in the research for this book that was unexpected?

Sex is dangerous and restrained in expression in Elizabeth Bowen's novels unlike her life, something I discovered in reading her letters. Here she openly displays the pleasures and disappointments in her relationships with men in and outside of marriage — though she conceals her relationships with women. Her correspondence refracts what she termed “a woman’s checked and puzzled life to which intelligence only gives further distorted pattern.” She was a woman of intelligence and talent with a streak of the farouche, the untamed:  unconventional, brilliant, and often formidable to others in her psychological acuity as well as her talent and accomplishments as an Anglo-Irish writer of 10 novels and several collections of short stories and nonfiction. Her experiences electrify the intelligent women in her novels — particularly The Heat of the Day, To the North, and The House in Paris — who are often disappointed in love. Another discovery about Bowen: She strongly believed in the artist’s responsibility to speak out, act, and write during convulsive times. My work in archives revealed more information about her time as a spy in neutral Ireland, 1940–1941, writing reports on the state of Irish opinion of the British and the Germans for the British Ministry of Information. Her documentary writing and life as a cultural figure illuminate her liminal personality as she easily crosses borders between nations, loyalties, and gender roles as a woman and a writer.

What are you working on next?

More public writing, I think.

Faculty Publications


Mina Loy: Apology of Genius by Mary Ann Caws (April 2022, Reaktion Books)

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Cover of Mina Loy: Apology of Genius next to headshot of Mary Ann Caws smiling

Mary Ann Caws is distinguished professor emerita of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate Center. Her areas of interest include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso.

Did you discover anything about Mina Loy in the research for this biography that was unexpected?

Ah, so much did I discover about Mina Loy that I hadn’t known before, even with multitudinous readings and viewings here and there! Her poems startled me, as did her works of art in their incredibly different styles and subjects: Yes, she was truly a genius in her constructions and writings and being.

What do you hope readers learn from this biography?

I hope readers of this biography/anthology of her writing and art find out how newly they can appreciate her various forms of creation, even should they have known a bit about her. She feels always new. 

What are you working on next?

I am just finished with a book of essays coming out with Reaktion Books in the spring/summer of 2024: Symbolism, Dada, Surrealism: Selected Essays by Mary Ann Caws.

Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography by David S. Reynolds (Vintage 1996)

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Cover of Walt Whitman's America next to headshot of David S. Reynolds smiling with light blue background

Distinguished Professor David S. Reynolds, the author or editor of 16 books on American literature and culture, is the winner of several prizes, including the Bancroft Prize, the Christian Gauss Award, and the Lincoln Prize.



Did you discover anything about Walt Whitman in the research for this biography that was unexpected?

Walt Whitman is such an innovative poet that I once accepted the common view that he was distanced from an American culture that was conventional and prudish. I found that, actually, the culture around him was weird, wild, and erotically charged, besides being polarized over slavery. In his writing, Whitman expressed his era’s most experimental ideas while offering his all-embracing poetic “I” as a healer and unifier. He poetry was, as he memorably called it, “the age transfigured.”

What do you hope readers learn from this biography?

I hope that readers of Walt Whitman’s America will gain a deeper understanding of his poetry as a means of appreciating everything we have in common as humans — what transcends distinctions of political views, ethnicity, gender, or nationality. Whitman is the ideal poet to read in our deeply divided time.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a book on two ships — the one that brought enslaved Black people to Jamestown in August 1619 and the Mayflower, which arrived at Plymouth in December 1620 — that had significant cultural and political repercussions over the course of American history.