You are here

Reenvisioning a "Proletariat in Rags"

African American Studies scholar Nathaniel Mills on his research and his favorite work to teach
December 14, 2016

Assistant Professor Nathaniel Mills

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

In fall 2016, the Department of English welcomed Dr. Nathaniel Mills as a new assistant professor here at Minnesota. Professor Mills received his BA from Syracuse University in 2004, followed by a PhD in English from the University of Michigan in 2011. A scholar of 20th-century US and African American literature, he was previously an assistant professor of English at California State University. His first book, Ragged Revolutionaries: The Lumpenproletariat and African American Marxism in Depression-Era Literature, will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2017.

Would you describe your forthcoming book?

Ragged Revolutionaries examines the little-known Marxist concept of the lumpenproletariat ("proletariat in rags"), Marx's term for all manner of social outsiders who get by without working in capitalist production: criminals, underworld operators, transients, and so forth. Marx dismisses these types as morally repulsive and politically reactionary. Since self-interest is vital to their survival outside of any class position, Marx argues that, when it comes to class struggles, lumpenproletarian individuals tend be bought off and used as the thugs and foot soldiers of the proletariat's enemies. However, I show how, for three African American writers who began their literary careers on the Communist Depression-era left—Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Margaret Walker—revisiting and revising Marxism's lumpenproletariat enabled them to craft an alternative mode of black Marxist theory and aesthetics. In their work, black folk outlaws, urban gangsters, prostitutes, hobos, and other members of the Great Depression's underclass indicate new and effective means of anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal critique and action. Besides re-evaluating the lumpenproletariat and the role of Marxism in African American politics and literature, my book introduces multiple unpublished and overlooked writings from the manuscript archives of Ellison and Walker, rounding out our sense of each writer's career and body of work.
"The English department at Minnesota
has long been on the cutting edge of
the discipline. . . . To work alongside
the department's distinguished
faculty now, as a colleague, is thus
a very exciting opportunity."
                        — Nathaniel Mills
 
Your next project explores the influence of writers' workshops on African American literature, especially in terms of collaborative authorship. What led you to that topic?
 
This project grew out of my research on Margaret Walker, who entered the then newly-formed Iowa Writer's Workshop as a creative writing student in the late 1930s. While she was at Iowa, Walker interacted with faculty like Paul Engle, who would shape the postwar rise of the discipline of creative writing and MFA programs. While I was researching in Walker's manuscript archive at Jackson State University a few years back, I came across Walker's journal entries in which she describes her position at Iowa as an African American writer coming from the Communist left in Chicago. At Iowa, Engle dismissed her earlier protest poetry and her commitments to racial and economic justice, advising her instead to write more (in his view) "authentic" black poetry about pastoral folk themes. Walker responded to Engle in a complex manner: on the one hand, she did write African American folk ballads that appear to conform to what he expected. However, these ballads subtly reformulate and extend the radical political commitments of her earlier work. Walker encountered a set of assumptions about "good writing" and "authentic black writing" at Iowa that failed to speak to her literary and sociopolitical interests, but she nonetheless manipulated those assumptions to advance those very interests.
 
This, to me, suggested that the question of how African American writers have used MFA programs to shape and advance the literary priorities of 20th-century African American literature would be fruitful to examine, particularly in the larger context of how writing groups and workshops in general have influenced the development of modern black writing. African American authorship is often theorized as an individual pursuit, a single black writer's engagement with African American cultural traditions and the political dynamics of literacy. But my work on the 1930s-1950s Communist left suggested a different possible approach. African American writers who began their careers on the left made use of the Communist movement's extensive literary infrastucture—its writers' clubs and workshops, its conferences, its journals—to shape their work. Here, it seemed, was a historical encounter that could allow us to theorize the origins of modern African American literature in sources other than individualist self-expression. As a result, in this project I seek to outline the conjoined influences of leftist political culture, collaborative exchanges (revision, feedback, challenges) between writers, and interracial friendships and working relationships on 20th-century African American writing.
 
What is your favorite work to teach?
 
Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man is a labyrinth of symbolic meanings, historical references, cultural associations, philosophical inquiries, and African American cultural forms. As such, it's an extremely "teachable" work, one that requires students to hone their skills at close reading and focused literary analysis at the same time that they must explore the novel's various intellectual, cultural, and historical contexts. The novel's main themes—the refusal of modern American institutions to treat African Americans as distinct individuals, the need to find solutions to America's perpetual failure to achieve democratic ideals—obviously continue to resonate with students today. Finally, the novel has a complicated political history and place in literary studies. Published at the height of the Cold War, it has long been held to prove that radical politics of both black nationalist and Marxist styles are unsuited to the complex realities of American life, and that African American social and political aspirations are more properly tied to mainstream liberal democracy. Because "democracy" is Ellison's key political term in this, his only published novel, and because both radical leftism and black nationalism seem to be caricatured in the book, Ellison himself has often been held up as a conservative and an apologist for the status quo. Introducing students to the role Invisible Man has played in crafting some dominant assumptions about radical politics, America, and African American experience reminds them that literature can shape larger social attitudes.
 
Where did you grow up? Is there anything—food, geography, feeling—you miss?
 
I grew up in Burlington, Vermont. I've only been in Minneapolis a short time, but I've found the Twin Cities and Minnesota to be similar to Vermont so far—not just in terms of weather, but culture as well. They're both home to vibrant intellectual and artistic scenes, as well as fantastic craft brewing! I moved here from Los Angeles, and I miss that city's sunshine and numerous culinary and cultural options, but I'm enjoying the comparative ease—logistically and financially—of living in the Twin Cities. Plus, seeing fall foliage for the first time in years was a pleasure!
 
What are you most excited about in joining the English faculty at Minnesota?
 
When I was studying for my PhD at the University of Michigan, the scholarly work of Minnesota English faculty like Paula Rabinowitz, John Wright, and Jani Scandura was crucial in informing my understanding of US and African American literature and culture. To my mind, the English department at Minnesota has long been on the cutting edge of the discipline, and the professors in my own field of US literary studies have produced some of its most challenging, inspiring, and exciting scholarship. To work alongside the department's distinguished faculty now, as a colleague, is thus a very exciting opportunity. Beyond Lind Hall, the university itself has so many resources, and offers so much in terms of intellectual and academic activity, that it's a privilege and a thrill to be here.