Nick Bromell received a B.A. in Classics and Philosophy from Amherst College and a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Stanford University. He was the founding editor of The Boston Review, where he continues to be a contributing editor; he also serves on the editorial board of The Sixties and as an advisory editor to the Class: Culture series published by the University of Michigan Press.
On April 5, 2016, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded the acclaimed Guggenheim Fellowship to UMass Amherst Professor of English Nicholas Bromell, one of only 175 recipients in the foundation’s 92nd annual competition, which drew nearly 3,000 applicants.
Professor Bromell describs how in the early 2000s he began to think about “the ways American literature could be read as speaking to the kinds of problems and issues that are inherent in democracy,” a pursuit that led him outside the exclusive field of literature and into an exploration of political theory.
The Guggenheim Fellowship—as well as Harvard University’s Warren Center Fellowship, which he was also recently awarded—allows Professor Bromell to dedicate a year’s leave to the development of this pursuit, one that builds on his most recent book, The Time is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of U.S. Democracy. This interdisciplinary work, which discusses American literature, political theory, African American literature, and black philosophy, explores how African American writers speak to the problems of democracy past and present.
“Writing that book got me very interested in a number of figures that I wanted to think about more and read more deeply in,” says Bromell, “and one of those was Frederick Douglass.” However, his single-discipline exposure to the author was missing some pieces. “He was a very familiar figure to me, and yet there was a gigantic archive of his speeches and letters and editorials that I really had barely dipped into,” he explains.
This wealth of information, largely untouched, inspired Bromell to further pursue Douglass’s ideas and contributions. “I decided to write a book focusing on his particular way of looking at democracy—his political theory of democracy,” he said. “That’s the project for which I won the Guggenheim.” With recognition and aid from these two fellowships, Bromell will be allowed time to fine-tune his extension of literature and other works to the realm of public discourse, which will ideally manifest in a second book highlighting these intersections of black American identity and political theory.
When asked which works he finds particularly applicable to the current political climate, he again turns to black authors, specifically to address the placement and use of religious beliefs in political rhetoric. “One of the wonderful things about African American literature and political thought is that it manages to find a way to honor the beliefs and principles that we hold to,” he said, “but, at the same time, remain extremely open and pluralistic.” In addition to speeches by Frederick Douglass, he cited essays by Anna Julia Cooper, the book Dark Water by W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, which he believes offers “a beautifully complex way of working out how we negotiate the profound differences among us.”
Professor Bromell can currently be found teaching the Integrative Experience course “Whitman and His Legacy” within the English department, as well as two graduate-level writing workshops—one for dissertation work and the other for “all the other kinds of writing that [graduate students] do.” He will soon find himself within a similar dynamic—this time, the think tank of scholars united under fellowship leave, particularly those brought together under this year’s Warren Center theme, “Imagining History, Doing Politics: The Uses and Disadvantages of the Past.”
As a seasoned writer, Bromell acknowledges this opportunity’s value for both singular and collective growth. “I will be in a community of really great scholars” he said, “some whose work I know and some whose work I’ll be discovering.” And as a dedicated professor, he is grateful for the time and space. “You know, I could’ve completed this book without the leave [the Guggenheim Fellowship provides], but it would’ve taken me much longer,” he says, “and it wouldn’t have been nearly as good.”