Yoon Lee

Anne Pierce Rogers Professor in American Literature and Professor of English

My research and teaching span two areas, British eighteenth and nineteenth century prose fiction, and Asian American literature.

My work spans several fields: British Romanticism, Asian American literature, novel theory and literary theory. My first book, Nationalism and Irony (Oxford UP, 2004), looked at how the two forces in the title formed a strange alliance in Britain in the period from 1790 to 1843. In the realms of political rhetoric, antiquarian activity, novel-writing, and cultural criticism, Edmund Burke, Walter Scott, and Thomas Carlyle highlighted social contradictions, even as they claimed to defend the established order. My second book, Modern Minority: Asian American Literature and Everyday Life (Oxford UP, 2013), examined the everyday as an aspect of modernity with an unexpected resonance and significance for Asian American literature. Through this literature as well as in theories of the everyday, a special type of form emerges: minor, abstract, small-scale, and repetitive. These features come to characterize not only the modern, Western everyday, but the racial form of Asians themselves once they become situated in this context.

My most recent book, Natural Laws of Plot: How Things Happen in the Realist Novel (Penn, 2023), develops new ways of thinking about plot by connecting the history of the realist novel to that of natural philosophy in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Instead of treating the novel’s reference to a real world as a question of imitation, I examine the epistemic codes, structures, models, and practices that allow novels to have plots or to make them. Plots in the realist novel require a physical, material world with regular characteristics and consistent baseline behaviors. They need ways to test, examine, and interpret the significance of what happens and what does not happen. By turning general experience into specific experiments, and experiments into laws, natural philosophers laid out a model of a coherent world made of matter, motion, bodies, and natural kinds. From Defoe’s ergonomic environments to Austen’s microscopic movements and Scott’s disoriented populations, plots do much more than present individual experience. They test and explore their own special kind of objectivity within the fictional storyworld, in ways that are relevant to the history of science.

My new project takes up the question of the social, rather than the natural world of plot. Tentatively titled Unrequited: Race, Labor, and Abstract Equality in Scott and Austen, this book examines how novels contribute to racial thinking. Instead of assuming that the genre relies on sympathy felt by the reader for what the novel shows, I argue that the novel operates most powerfully by invoking a deeply hidden sense of equivalence or equality between two often very disparate things. I call this the structure of requital, when something is given and something equivalent is returned (or not). It applies to characters, proposals, gifts, battles, rescues, betrayals. I suggest that what’s being weighed in these novels is abstract value. It is through labor and exchange in these scenes, plots, and character-types that invisible but real boundaries of race take shape. It is not often remarked that the novels of both authors were published between Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and its emancipation of slaves in 1833, but this is central to my argument.

I have published on other subjects including the diasporic novel, narrative theory, structuralism, Lukács, and Maria Edgeworth. Broadly, I try to think about the intersection of theory and history. I recently co-edited a special issue of Representations, “Proxy Wars,” with Kent Puckett (August 2023). My essays can also be found in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, MLQ (Peripheral Realisms), ELH, and other journals and collections, including the Cambridge Companion to Romanticism and Race, and the Cambridge Companion to Narrative Theory. My courses cover topics from ghost stories and decolonization to Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, Capitalism and Literature, Asian American fiction, and narrative and literary theory. In 2024 I serve as President of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, and on the Executive Committee of the MLA’s English Romantic Forum (and previously the Prose Fiction Forum). I have served as a reader for the MLA’s First Book Prize and (currently) the James Russell Lowell Prize. I co-convene, with Deidre Lynch, the Novel Theory Seminar at the Mahindra Center for the Humanities. Most recently, I am the lead PI for a $1.5 million three-year Mellon Humanities for All Times grant called “Transforming Stories, Spaces, Lives.”

Selected Recent and Forthcoming Publications:

Natural Laws of Plot: Objectivity in the Novel (University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2024)

“Structuralist Violence,” ELH (forthcoming)

“Kant and Burke on Color and Inheritance,” The Cambridge Companion to Romanticism and Race (forthcoming)

“Introduction,” with Kent Puckett, Proxy Wars, Representations 163 (August 2023)

“Typicality in Novels and Novel Theory,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction (2022)
“Jane Austen, Whiteness, and the Phenomenology of Comfort,” Keats-
Shelley Journal (2022)

"Narrative Theory and Asian American Literature," Oxford Research Encyclopedia of
(24 pp.) Oxford University Press. (February 2019) doi:


  • A.B., Harvard College
  • Ph.D., Yale University