Ritger examines role of literature in the birth of modern punishment

In his dissertation, Matthew Ritger, a doctoral student in English, is constructing a critical history of rehabilitative punishments in the age of authors such as Thomas More, Shakespeare and Milton. 

Whether and how to incorporate rehabilitation into incarceration is an issue that society has grappled with for centuries and still struggles with today. In his dissertation, graduate student Matthew Ritger is looking at an unexpected source to study the period when the concept first began to emerge.

Earlier this year, Ritger was named one of the four winners of the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton University’s top honor for graduate students. The fellowships support their final year of study at Princeton and are awarded to one Ph.D. student in each of the four divisions (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering) whose work has exhibited the highest scholarly excellence. The Jacobus Fellows were honored at Alumni Day ceremonies in February.

Ritger, a doctoral student in English who came to Princeton in 2014, earned a B.A. at Dartmouth College and an M.F.A. at Cornell University. His dissertation, “Objects of Correction: Literature and the Birth of Modern Punishment,” constructs a critical history of rehabilitative punishments in the age of authors such as Thomas More, Shakespeare and Milton.

Ritger studies the role of imaginative literature during formative centuries for the ideas and the practices of correctional institutions, at a time when England’s very first “house of correction” — a new kind of prison that would go on to influence the later penitentiary — stood just next door to one of Shakespeare’s stages.

“The beginning of the idea that you could use work training and work discipline and use temporary punishments as a way of reintroducing people to the workforce, that began in this period ... and at this place called Bridewell in London,” Ritger said.

Ritger is the recipient of several research grants from the Center for Digital Humanities, the Princeton University Institute for International and Regional Studies, and the Center for the Study of Religion. He has spent significant time at the Rare Book School and the Folger Shakespeare Library, participating in their yearlong dissertation seminar, as well as a six-week summer seminar on More’s “Utopia.”

Bradin Cormack, professor of English — who is advising Ritger together with Leonard Barkan, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Comparative Literature; Sophie Gee, associate professor of English; and Nigel Smith, the William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature and professor of English — said Ritger’s work stands out in its combination of concepts, practices and texts.

“He’s a historian of an idea, he’s a historian of the practices through which that idea became substantiated, and he’s a historian of the institutions that accommodated that idea and those practices,” Cormack said. “And what makes his work especially exciting is that he’s thinking about correction, he’s thinking about the argument that correction is, the rhetoric that correction is, at a moment when it’s in formation.”

Through his research, Ritger has discovered another way of engaging with scholarship.

“Teaching at Princeton and Cornell and spending time as a resident graduate student at Mathey College has made it clear to me that sharing my research with students is the goal,” Ritger said.