2021 Convocation Address


Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor, Department of English Language and Literature and the College

DEBORAH NELSON’s field of scholarly interest is late 20th-century culture and politics in the United States, which includes American poetry, novels, essays, and plays; gender and sexuality studies; photography; autobiography and confessional writing; American ethnic literature; poetry and poetics; and Cold War history.

Her publications include two widely acclaimed books: Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil (2017) and Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (2001). Professor Nelson’s work has garnered many awards and accolades, including the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize for Best Book of 2017 and the Gordon J. Laing Award in 2019 for the book by a faculty member published in the previous three years that brings the most distinction to the University of Chicago Press, for Tough Enough.

A leader in her field, Professor Nelson has had her work published in such esteemed journals as PMLA, American Literary History, Contemporary Literature, Feminist Studies, and the Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath.

Recently, Professor Nelson has focused her inquiry on the years immediately following World War II as co-leader of “@1948,” an interdisciplinary Sawyer Seminar sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. She co-edited, with Leela Gandhi, a selection of papers from the seminar in “Around 1948,” a special issue of Critical Inquiry (2014).

As director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality from 2006 to 2009, Professor Nelson worked to integrate the innovations of the last 50 years in the study of women, gender, and sexuality into the core research and teaching mission of the University. She also served as deputy provost for graduate education from 2011 to 2015. She is a founding member of Post45, a research collective of scholars working on American literature and culture since 1945.

Professor Nelson earned her bachelor’s degree cum laude with distinction in English from Yale University, a master’s degree in English from Columbia University, and her PhD in English with a certification in women’s studies from City University of New York Graduate School and University Center. She joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1996.