department of english

114 Swan Hall, 60 Upper College Road, Kingston, RI 02881

Main Office: 401.874.5931 - Graduate Office: 401.874.4663

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Mary Cappello

  • Professor, Affiliated Professor of Gender and Women's Studies
  • Creative Writing; American Literature; Literature and Medicine; Sound Studies
  • Phone: 401.874.4678, Office: 308A Swan Hall
  • Email:


A 2011 Guggenheim Fellow in Creative Arts/Nonfiction, Mary Cappello is primarily interested in creating forms of disruptive beauty, figuring memory in the information age, bringing incompatible knowledges into the same space, and working at the borders of literary genres. Professor Cappello was a recipient of a 2015 Berlin Prize and was in residence at the American Academy in Berlin as the Holtzbrinck Fellow in the Fall 2015 semester. Her memoir, Night Bloom (Beacon Press) is a multi-genre work that combines oral history, folklore, the bilingual journals of her Italian immigrant grandfather (a shoemaker by trade), dream-work, letters and cultural theory. Cappello’s second book, Awkward: A Detou(Bellevue Literary Press), a Los Angeles Times Bestseller, is a book-length essay on “awkwardness” that ranges across subjects and conditions as diverse as ontological discomfort and situational silence, immigration and stuttering, the life and work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Emily Dickinson and Henry James, tact and touch. In 2009, Cappello’s breast cancer anti-chronicle, Called Back, appeared from Alyson Books under the new directorship of Donald Weise. Called Back received a ForeWord Book of the Year Award and an Independent Publishers Award (IPPY) as well as being named a Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and the Publishing Triangle Award. “Getting the News,” an excerpt from Called Back that appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of The Georgia Review, won a GAMMA Award for Best Feature from The Magazine Association of the Southeast. Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them appeared in January 2011 from The New Press. Part psychobiography, part cultural history, part philosophical meditation, Swallow emerges out of a collection of “foreign bodies” housed in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum: nearly 2000 swallowed or aspirated “things” that pioneering laryngologist Chevalier Jackson extracted nonsurgically from the air and foodways of people in the early 20th century and that he also saved and framed. A contribution to histories of the marvelous and the curious, Swallow brings Jackson’s incomparable contributions to the history of medicine to light while simultaneously restoring the narratives, lives, and longings that haunt Jackson’s collection.

Professor Cappello’s latest book, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, on the ineffable subject of “mood” and its affinities with clouds, sonic atmospheres, “sonorous envelopes,” and dioramas, appears this Fall from the University of Chicago Press. Rather than yoke mood to an age-old taxonomy of emotion, Cappello uses what she calls “cloud-writing” to explore mood as architecture and air; as envelope and sphere; as niche, sound, skin and reverberation; as wave, voice and hue; as temperature and tempo; as making and creating.

She is currently working on a suite of “studies” on the practice of study in the information age, and on a series of linked essays titled, Waylaid By Interest, on the nature of interest and aversion, inspired by post-Swallow encounters and discoveries.

Cappello has been honored with a Fulbright Fellowship to teach at The Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, Russia; The Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies (with photographer Paola Ferrario) to document the lives of new immigrants to Italy; The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative for her essay, “Can Creative Writing Be Taught”; and, Notable Essay of the Year citations in Best American Essays for 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2014. Her work has been featured in The New York Times,, The Huffington Post, NPR, MSNBC, and in guest author blogs for Powells Books. Earlier in her career, she was honored with The Richard Beale Davis Prize for the best essay published in Early American Literature, the Teacher of the Year Award at the University of Rochester, the Excellence in Teaching Award at SUNY/Buffalo, and she has been nominee and finalist for the URI Teaching Excellence Award. In 2012, Cappello was named a URI “Big Thinker,” and in 2011, she received URI Recognition for Outstanding Contributions to Research, as well as a College of Arts and Sciences Excellence in Research Award. In 2015, she received the URI Foundation’s Scholarly Excellence Award.

Some of Cappello’s recent essaying addresses Gunther von Hagens’ bodyworlds exhibit (inSalmagundi); sleep, sound and the silence of silent cinema (in Michigan Quarterly Review); the psychology of tears (in Water~stone Review); and the uncanny dimensions of parapraxis and metalepsis (in Interim). Excerpts from Appearances: Scenes from a Queer Friendship appear in American Letters and Commentary, and Quarterly West. Composed in a spirit of poetic reverie, and following a tradition of queer portraiture (e.g., Stein, H.D., Plante, Als) and queer theory (especially Foucault and Sedgwick), this experiment in prose attempts to enact the forms, literary and relational, made possible by a friendship between a gay man and a lesbian.Cabinet Magazine, Hotel Amerika, Southwest Review, Western Humanities Review, Raritan,and numerous anthologies, including most recently the Cambridge Companion to Autobiography; Bending Genre: Theorizing Creative Nonfiction; and After Montaigne have also provided homes for Cappello’s work.

With a background in Medical Humanities, Cappello’s earlier scholarship focused on nineteenth century American literature and culture with an emphasis on nationalism and heteronormativity, plague discourse and the early American novel, illness and authorship, radical poetries and bodily bounds. Cappello has published articles on visual and literary culture (Eakins and Alice Barber Stephens; Demuth and James), Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, Poe, Hawthorne, Alice James, and Thomas Shepard; interviewed Italian filmmaker Roberta Torre for Quarterly Review of Film and Video; edited a Special Issue of ATQ: A Journal of Nineteenth Century American Literature and Culture, “Women In/Visibility”; written book reviews for Water~stone, Womens Review of Books, and Radical Teacher.

Recent courses offered by Cappello include: Creative Writing Seminars and Workshops in Literary Nonfiction; Experimental Nonfiction; Memoir; and Poetry. Antebellum US Lit: Literary Acoustics; Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein; Immigrant Subjectivity and Documentary Discourse; Charles Chesnutt and James Baldwin; The Contemporary Memoir in Theory and Practice; Literature and Medicine: An Ethics of Care; Literary Nonfiction: Barthes, Baldwin, and Sontag.

To read, watch, or listen to interviews, reviews, and to access samples of Cappello’s work; to learn about her recent readings in New Queer Writing series; her workshops on “archaeologies of the actual”; and her numerous presentations at various medical schools, including U/Penn, Brown, and Yale, please visit her website.

Select Links for Ready Reference:

*An Interview for NPR Berlin with poet and literary translator, Alexander Booth, on Cappello’s forthcoming book on “mood.”

*Of Mood: An Atmospheric Reading, a video of Cappello’s multi-modal reading at the American Academy in Berlin on mood and sound.

*“Flow,” a lyric essay for Bending Genre

*”Voluptuously, Expansively, Historically, Contradictorily: Essaying the Interview with Mary Cappello and David Lazar” for The Conversant

*On memoir and its vicissitudes

*Cappello’s Guide to “Discursive Autobiography”

View one of Mary Cappello’s illustrated readings, “The Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection and the Art It Has Inspired,” at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology Museum and Gallery, London, England, June 2012

*With LA Times Carolyn Kellogg, on the most important book Cappello read in school

*With Mutter Museum Director Robert Hicks for No Bones About It on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection

*With Julie Bolcer for Here! TV, on writing breast cancer and its politics

*With Ph.D. Candidate, Sarah Kruse, on writing the strange and non-narrative assemblage

*With Patrick Madden and his students on aphorism, awkward quests, and more

A conversation with URI professor, poet, Peter Covino on uncontained beauty in poetry and the essay


Creative Writing; American literature; Literature and Medicine; Sound Studies


  • Ph.D., State University of New York, Buffalo
  • M.A., State University of New York, Buffalo
  • B.A., Dickinson College

Personal website:

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