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David AP Womble

Assistant Professor

David AP Womble works on science, literature, and political theory across Europe and the British empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. He teaches at the intersection of empire studies and ecocriticism, offering classes that seek out the most richly imagined areas of culture, especially where they lead us across a wide range of literary, musical, philosophical, scientific, and visual forms.  

David is currently finishing a book on the making of mass behavior in Britain from 1748 to 1907. This project, tentatively titled The Physiology of the Multitude, argues that "the masses" in fiction and political theory functioned as a kind of behavioral mode through which categorically different groups of people discovered shared capacities for action, affect, and cognition located in the body. Where biopolitical paradigms in literary studies have cast the masses as the unruly form taken by working-class and colonial populations that were too much body and too little mind, Physiology of the Multitude inverts that thesis. Through rigorous engagement with emergent scientific accounts of the nervous system, novelists and political theorists wrote into being a new understanding of the masses as a space in which diverse demographics were all enacting the same embodied rhythms, collective habituation, contagious affect, and conformity to the behavior of other bodies. Across literary and non-literary discourses, the figure of the masses was strategically deployed in response to demographic dilemmas surrounding immigration, racial heterogeneity, and the urban/colonial consolidation of regional communities. This counter-history of the masses follows the fortunes of an ensemble of characters and categories such as the stranger, the misfit, the exile, criminal classes, laboring bodies, and colonial transplants. These figures are threaded through the history of crowds, mobs, and masses in these two centuries, from early eighteenth-century crowds that occur just outside the scope of the page and enter represented space only as individual avatars of larger assemblies elsewhere, through high-Victorian fascination with the thickly embodied experience of being plunged into anonymous multitudes, and on to the early twentieth-century effort to redescribe society itself in terms of mass behavior within crowded public spaces.  

While completing this book, David is also at work on a second project on thermodynamic energy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Enlightenment Energy traces a submerged power struggle between Protestant and Catholic epistemologies that shaped the trajectories of thermodynamic thought. Whereas intellectual historians have equated these two centuries with a process of rational secularization, this book historicizes secular rationality as a system of object relations derived from Newtonian mechanics. When natural philosophers studying early thermodynamics began to diverge from Newtonian laws, they inadvertently reversed the Protestant political project operating at the heart of the scientific revolution, which sought to drain objects of any vitality and leave to matter only the abstract properties of mass, density, and volume. By unleashing utterly mystifying circuits of energy operating at the level of matter, the rise of thermodynamics introduced an expanded set of claims objects make on the human subject in a world composed of energy. Enlightenment Energy locates in this era not only a resurgence of what can be identified as deeply Catholic attitudes towards matter, but also the origins of theoretical categories that have been variously articulated as presence, radiance, object-oriented ontology, and vital materialism. Within this revised intellectual history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the project considers the history of the book as an object, using the object-relations of thermodynamics to offer a new account of how writers across Europe understood the secular-but-enchanted attachments to literature that we form through reading.  

Selected Publication

  • Co-edited with Lynn Voskuil (in progress), British Energy Systems, 1790-1914: Science, Industry, Culture, Routledge Press.  
  • "What Climate Did to Consent, 1748-1818" ELH 87.2 
  • Phineas Finn, the Statistics of Character, and the Sensorium of Liberal Personhood" NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 51.1 
  • Review of Michael Tondre'sThe Physics of Possibility, Modern Philology 117.2 
  • Reflection on Emily Steinlight'sPopulating the Novel, V21 Collations 


  • Ph.D., University of Chicago
  • B.A., Duke University

Honors, Awards and Grants Received:

  • William Lee Pryor College Professorship, University of Houston 
  • Award for Excellence in Writing Pedagogy, University of Chicago 
  • Blair Dissertation Fellowship, University of Chicago 
  • Nicholson Graduate Fellowship, Nicholson Center for British Studies 
  • Barbara Herrnstein Smith Award, Duke University 
  • Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship, Duke University  

Teaching Information:


  • 3315 The Romantic Movement: Crossing Borders 
  • 3316 Literature of the Victorian Age 
  • 3328 Masterpieces of British Lit II: A Brief History of the Modern Novel 


  • 7392 Selected Topics in Nineteenth Century Studies: On Running Out of Steam 
  • 8360 The English Novel: Vital Force 

Research Interests:

  • Critical Theory 
  • Nineteenth-Century British Literature 
  • Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature 
  • Romanticism
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