Christopher Grobe

Associate Professor, Amherst College

The Art of Confession

The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV 


What do midcentury “confessional” poets have in common with today’s reality TV stars? They share an inexplicable urge to make their lives an open book, and also a sense that this book can never be finished. Christopher Grobe argues that, in postwar America, artists like these forged a new way of being in the world. Identity became a kind of work—always ongoing, never complete—to be performed on the public stage.

The Art of Confession tells the history of this cultural shift and of the movement it created in American art: confessionalism. Like realism or romanticism, confessionalism began in one art form, but soon pervaded them all: poetry and comedy in the 1950s and ’60s, performance art in the ’70s, theater in the ’80s, television in the ’90s, and online video and social media in the 2000s. Everywhere confessionalism went, it stood against autobiography, the art of the closed book. Instead of just publishing, these artists performed—with, around, and against the text of their lives. 

A blend of cultural history, literary criticism, and performance theory, The Art of Confession explores iconic works of art and draws surprising connections among artists who may seem far apart, but who were influenced directly by one another. Studying extraordinary art alongside ordinary experiences of self-betrayal and -revelation, Christopher Grobe argues that a tradition of “confessional performance” unites poets with comedians, performance artists with social media users, reality TV stars with actors—and all of them with us. There is art, this book shows, in our most artless acts.

Praise for The Art of Confession

“I must confess: I love The Art of Confession. In clear and stylish prose, with gusto and flourish, and through original arguments about the compulsion to confess and the compulsion to perform, Grobe has produced a stunning book. Broadly engaged, yet sharply focused, this work is cultural criticism of the highest standard.”

—Nick Salvato, Cornell University

“With this ambitious and engaging book, Christopher Grobe elucidates the centrality of confession to performance, poetry, and reality TV, deftly unfolding the often-paradoxical politics of making and sharing secret selves.”

—Peggy Phelan, Stanford University

Reviews of The Art of Confession

"Grobe traces the history and evolution of modern American confessional art in this impressive and wide-ranging debut . . . an engrossing, dense work of literary scholarship for the 21st century . . ."

—Publisher's Weekly (full review here)

"In this work, Grobe . . . explores 'the performance of self' . . . with just the right balance of theoretical acumen, playfulness, tongue-in-cheek observations, and historical, literary, political, and cultural accuracy . . ."

Library Journal (starred review)

"Grobe's study of confession and performance is impressive. It is erudite yet accessible, offers insights on every page, and is energized by stylistically engaging prose. Covering such disparate subjects as confessional poetry, stand-up comedy, television, memoirs, music, art, and film, Grobe offers a compelling narrative of confession as a mediated performance of selfhood. . . . This scholarly study is as creative in its writing as it is in its analysis . . . a model for what outstanding academic writing should be. — Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers."

Choice Reviews (quoted with permission; ©️ American Library Association)

"A feeling that Grobe is working to piece things together, and take them apart, to present them to the reader for further contemplation. . . . resonates strongly throughout the book. Seeing the author arrive at his conclusions, rather than present them as a fait accompli, offers a compelling act of reading."

—Popmatters (full review here)

Podcast interviews about The Art of Confession

New Books in Literary Studies (New Books Network), interviewed by Petal Samuel, released 16 February 2018. (listen here)

Tourniquet Pod , ep. 1 (Tourniquet Review), interviewed by John Ebersole, released 17 March 2018. (listen here)

Open Stacks Podcast (The Seminary Co-op), interviewed by John Muse, forthcoming.

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Imitation Games

Actors, Robots, and the Art of Seeming Human

(critical monograph in progress)


New technologies can change the way people understand—or even experience—their own humanity. Think, for instance, of how our sense of human intelligence is changing in an age of “smart” phones, TVs, and homes. Realist actors, those experts in the art of seeming human, are excellent barometers of such changes in the cultural atmosphere. When they take a new technology for their scene partner, they don’t just test its affordances—they also push at the limits of their own performed humanity. Perhaps that’s why people have often been wowed by actors who play opposite new machines. When theater-makers first put the telegraph machine onstage, for instance, people marveled at the acting that performers achieved in its presence; they obsessed over what we’d call “subtext” and thrilled to what (later) they’d learn to call theatrical “liveness.” And when characters on stage and screen started talking on the phone, critics were shocked by how deep and convincing it always was. (“Perhaps it is easier to act with a telephone than a man,” one declared!) These actors show us what it means to get entangled with technology—and to feel ourselves changed by the encounter. This phenomenon is not unique to the performing arts. In real life, too, person and thing might dissolve at their edges when they meet, then precipitate anew. The world might be shaken, but then it soon sifts out into new configurations of the human.

Imitation Games will be the first cultural history of this process to take performance as its primary cultural archive. It begins with the insight that realist theories of acting both prohibit and require “mechanical” acting. For example, Konstantin Stanislavsky’s favorite word for bad acting is “mechanical,” but he also insists that every actor must become “sensitive, responsive, mobile—like a well oiled and regulated machine.” Sanford Meisner likewise loathed “mechanical” acting, but required his actors to perform “robotically” at first. Behind this seeming contradiction lie two visions of acting (and of humanity): what I call the “rude” and “refined” perspectives on the human machinery. The “rude mechanical” is (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) a straw man of bad acting, someone hollowed out by performance and all its deadening repetitions. “Refined mechanicals,” by contrast, are “responsive” creatures—machine-like inasmuch as they are “sensitive” to stimuli and “mobile” in response. They don’t deny their own “mechanical” nature, but move through it and beyond it—the same way many robots today hope to do. 

Exploring topics that range from 19th-century acting theories to their use in contemporary social robotics, Imitation Games offers a new intellectual history of realist acting—and a performance-minded contribution to the history of science and technology.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe