Menu

Great Immigrants

Branka Arsić
Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University | Guggenheim Fellow
Born in:
Serbia

As a scholar of the American Renaissance, Serbian-born Branka Arsić brings a fresh perspective to iconic literary works, challenging some of the most commonly accepted assumptions about their authors. For example, she argues that Ralph Waldo Emerson — the 19th-century essayist, philosopher, and poet at the heart of the transcendentalist movement — was a materialist rather than an individualist. In 2012 Arsić joined the faculty at Columbia University, where she is now the Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor of English and Comparative Literature. Her 2016 book Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau, which was awarded the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize, examines how the death of his brother influenced Henry David Thoreau’s relationship with biological life. Arsić is also the author of On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson and a book on Herman Melville entitled Passive Constitutions, or, 7½ Times Bartleby, among other works. In 2019 Arsić was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship. She received her PhD from the University of Belgrade and taught at the Central European University in Budapest and the State University of New York at Albany before coming to Columbia. Arsić is currently working on a book about Emily Dickinson as well as a second one on Melville. As a professor, Arsić has been praised for sharing insights that enable students to see canonical literature in a new light, helping them connect those works to contemporary issues and experiences. “What really surprises them,” she says, “is that deep in the origins of American ethics and values are things that are still relevant in this country today."