Cary Nelson Capsule Biography

Cary Nelson was born in 1946 and grew up in Philadelphia and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He received a B.A. from Antioch College in Ohio (1967) and a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in New York (1970). Since the fall of 1970 he has taught modern poetry and literary theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English. His campus work has included a decades-long project of building up the holdings in modern poetry and the Spanish Civil War in the library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Department.

Nelson is known not only as a blunt and devastatingly witty commentator on higher education but also as an activist working hard to reform it. He was active in the effort to unionize the Champaign-Urbana faculty in the 1970s and in the drive to recognize a graduate employee union twenty years later. As a member of the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly he co-authored a number of reform proposals, including a major project to document salaries for contingent faculty in English and foreign languages. As a member of the organization’s Executive Council he helped assure that these projects were completed. For the last ten years he has served on the National Council of the American Association of University Professors, the past six as second Vice President. He coauthored the Association’s Redbook statements on graduate students and on academic professionals.

All these commitments are consistent with his history. His family was active in the anti-nuclear movement. As a student, Nelson joined the famous 1963 Washington, D.C., march where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Later he worked as an assistant teacher in Harlem in New York for a year. He was active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s and served as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War. As a scholar, one of his main interests is in preserving the cultural heritage of the American Left. He discovered and published Edwin Rolfe’s anti-McCarthypoems and coedited Madrid 1937, a massive collection of letters written home by American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. He edited the first comprehensive anthology of modern American poetry for Oxford University press, at the same time addressing contemporary topics like political correctness, hate speech regulations, sexual harassment, academic unionization, and the financial crisis in higher education.

“Nelson has always been a doer and a risk-taker.” So wrote a reviewer for The Nation in 1997. He was thinking of a career that has encompassed a major project to redefine Marxism and a continuing effort to open up and democratize the canon of American poetry. Few commentators are neutral about Nelson’s impact on higher education. Hailed as a “samurai professor” defending academia’s most exploited employees, he has also been attacked by conservatives as “a proud betrayer of his discipline.” Furious at an NEH project funded before he came on board, William Bennett dismissed him as “trendy,” but reviewers later labeled the project “epoch-making.”

His twenty-five authored or edited books include The Incarnate Word: Literature as Verbal Space (1973), Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry (1981), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1987), Cultural Studies (1992), Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities (1994), Will Work for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis (1997), Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education (1999), Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (2001), and Office Hours : Activism and Change in the Academy (2004). He is the author of over 100 essays, including a number published in Academe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Education.
Cary is married to Paula A. Treichler, a University of Illinois faculty member whose books include How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS (1999).

Cary Nelson took office as the 49th president of the American Association of University Professors in June 2006.