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What We're Reading: Nathaniel Mills

Our new assistant professor, an American literature scholar, looked to Europe for his summer reading
September 13, 2016

Assistant Professor Nathaniel Mills

Assistant Professor Nathaniel Mills
Assistant Professor Nathaniel Mills, who joined the English faculty in 2016

This fall, Assistant Professor Nathaniel Mills begins his first semester at Minnesota, teaching the American Literatures and Cultures II survey as well as "The American Novel from 1900." His first book, Ragged Revolutionaries: The Lumpenproletariat and African American Marxism in Depression-Era Literature, is forthcoming from the University of Massachusetts Press. In it, he examines how three major African American writers on the 1930s Communist left crafted an alternative mode of black Marxism. His next project explores the influence of writers' workshops on African American literature, especially in terms of collaborative authorship.

Cover of At Swim, Two Boys

What books are you recommending, Professor Mills?

This past summer I finally got to read Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, a novel about Ireland on the eve of the 1916 Easter Uprising. The book’s artful prose, complex and humane characters, and clever allusions to Joyce and other Irish writers make it hard to put down, but O’Neill’s theme is equally engrossing. Through various characters’ experiences and relationships, O’Neill links two kinds of desires that we don’t correlate nearly enough. On the one hand, the novel is about nationalist desire for Irish independence and Irish cultural autonomy; on the other, it’s about libidinal desire for a world in which queer affections and love between men is no longer suppressed and vilified. Both of these desires explode, in tragic ways, during the Uprising, where the struggle for the right to be Irish is at the same time the struggle for the right to love.

I also spent the summer reading Elena Ferrante’s impressive Neapolitan novels. These four books chart the evolving friendship of two women from Naples over the course of several socially and politically tumultuous decades in post-war Italy. I was particularly fascinated by the way the later books in the series sketch the protagonist’s intellectual development as both an avant-garde novelist and a bold and idiosyncratic Marxist and feminist intellectual. How she shapes her intellectual priorities against the backdrop of Cold War Europe and alongside some challenging choices about love, family, and friendship is, I think, a fascinating read for any writer, intellectual, or academic wrestling with some of the same challenges. And as a fan of mystery novels, I appreciated how a murder that occurs early in the first novel continues to provoke unanswered questions and further mysteries throughout the rest of the series—it operates as a sort of unsolvable primal transgression that structures many of the characters’ experiences of life’s difficulties as ultimately unknowable and irresolvable. The four books are so rich in human detail that finishing them leaves one feeling that much wiser when it comes to love, sex, politics, art, friendship, and the complicated world we live in.

In another take on the Ferrante books, Professor M. J. Fitzgerald muses on the experience of reading them in the original Italian.