Nicolaus Mills

BA, Harvard University. PhD, Brown University. Special interest in American studies. Author of: Every Army Man is With You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed; Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower; The Triumph of Meanness: America’s War Against Its Better Self; Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial; Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964; The Crowd in American Literature; and American and English Fiction in the 19th Century. Editor of: Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq; Debating Affirmative Action; Arguing Immigration; Culture in an Age of Money; Busing USA; The New Journalism; and The New Killing Fields. Contributor to: The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, The Nation, Yale Review, Commonweal, National Law Journal, Journal of American Studies, Western Humanities Review, and The Guardian; editorial board member, Dissent magazine. Recipient of fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, and the Rockefeller Foundation. SLC, 1972–

Undergraduate Courses 2022-2023

Literature

Classic American Literature: The 19th Century and Its Legacy

Open, Seminar—Fall

At a time when he was America’s most famous novelist, Ernest Hemingway declared that all modern American literature begins with Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn. This course is based on the belief that Hemingway did not look closely enough at the authors who constitute the classic American prose writers of the 19th century. The heroes and heroines of their densely-written books offer us a legacy of defiance that is distinctly modern. Twain is no outlier when put in their company. In the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass flees slavery to begin a new life in the North as a writer and abolitionist. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne refuses to conform to Puritan society and has a baby out of wedlock. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, his narrator—who never reveals his actual name—goes to sea seeking meaning on a whale ship. In Henry Thoreau’s Walden, Thoreau takes up life in the woods in order to draw closer to nature. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck travels down the Mississippi with an escaped slave with whom Huck sides despite his southern upbringing. In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer refuses to make the marriage expected of her;, and in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (published at the start of the 20th century), her heroine, Lily Bart, flouts convention even more daringly. In focusing on just seven books, the aim of this course is to provide an opportunity for a series of close readings of representative texts. In conference, students will be encouraged to look more closely at other work by these same authors, as well as the 19th-century English novel.

Faculty

First-Person America: Classic American Literature of the 20th Century

Open, Seminar—Spring

In 20th-century American literature, first-person writing is central to a series of classic texts—from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. The result is a body of literature at once personal and far-reaching. This course will explore how first-person writing, with its emphasis on supplying an “I” for an eye, increased the diversity of the 20th-century authors that Americans read and even influenced the form of books not written in the first person. We will pay particular attention to how first-person writing was conducive to the rise of narrators who, in the past, might have been dismissed as unreliable or ignored as outsiders. The reading for this course will include novels, memoirs, and journalism and move chronologically through the 20th century. In addition to the work of Fitzgerald and Baldwin, the books we study will include Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In conference, students will have a chance to combine close analysis with their own first-person approach to a subject or an author.

Faculty

The Marriage Plot: Love and Romance in American and English Fiction

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

“Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had,” Charlotte Brontë’s title character exclaims in the concluding chapter of Jane Eyre. Jane’s wedding may be quiet, but the steps leading up to her marriage with a man who once employed her as a governess are tumultuous. With the publication of Jane Eyre, we have left behind the early marriage-plot novel in which a series of comic misunderstandings pave the way for a joyous wedding. This course will begin with classic marriage-plot novels such as Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But the course will also look at love and courtship in untraditional marriage-plot novels such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. By the time the course concludes with Jeffrey Eugenides’s contemporary novel, The Marriage Plot, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the marriages and courtships that we see will be distinctly modern in the form that they take and, equally significant, in the complexity and uncertainty that they bring with them.

Faculty

Previous Courses

Literature

Classic American Literature: The 19th Century and Its Rebels

Open, Seminar—Fall

Nineteenth-century American literature is made up of a small number of iconic prose texts. The ones most often put in this category are Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. This course will focus on these five books and then conclude with a glimpse into two 20th-century novels, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. What links these texts is the rebellion of their central figures. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne defies the sexual and theological mores of the Puritans. In Moby Dick, Ahab challenges the notion of a moral universe. In the narrative of his life, Frederick Douglass challenges the slave system. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck defies the racism he was raised to believe in. In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer ignores the assumption that she must marry well to be a success. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart refuses to marry at all. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby challenges the prerogatives of old money and power. The questions we will wrestle with over the course of the term is: What are we to make of the antagonism that mainstream, 19th-century American literature exhibits toward social and political convention? And does the antagonism speak to our better angels?

Faculty

First-Person America

Open, Seminar—Year

To a remarkable degree, the most important American literature texts, whether fiction or nonfiction, are written from a first-person perspective and depend on a unique “I” speaking directly to readers and focusing on a wide variety of personal experiences. In the 19th century, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn are all first-person narratives. In the early 20th century, the same first-person strategy holds for Willa Cather’s My Antonia, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. This course will begin by surveying the classic, first-person texts of American literature and then move on to such modern work as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. At the heart of this course is the premise that contemporary, American first-person writing is an extension, not a departure, from classic American first-person writing.

Faculty

First-Person America: Classic American Literature of the 20th Century

Open, Seminar—Spring

In 20th-century American literature, first-person writing is central to a series of classic texts—from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. The result is a body of literature at once both personal and far-reaching. This course will explore how first-person writing, with its emphasis on supplying an “I” for an eye, helped increase the diversity of the 20th-century authors that Americans read and even influenced the form of books not written in the first person. We will pay particular attention to how first-person writing was conducive to the rise of narrators who, in the past, might have been dismissed as either unreliable or ignored as outsiders. The reading for this course will include novels, memoirs, and journalism and move chronologically through the 20th century. In addition to the work of Fitzgerald and Baldwin, the books that we study will include Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In conference, students will have a chance to combine close analysis with their own first-person approach to a subject or an author.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: The Marriage Plot: Love and Romance in American and English Fiction

Open, FYS—Year

“Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had,” Charlotte Bronte’s title character exclaims in the concluding chapter of Jane Eyre. Jane’s wedding may be quiet, but the steps leading up to her marriage with the man who once employed her as a governess are tumultuous. With the publication of Jane Eyre, we left behind the early marriage-plot novel in which a series of comic misunderstandings pave the way for a joyous wedding. From that point on, marriage would be a high-risk adventure for both parties. This course will begin with classic marriage-plot novels such as Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But the course will also look at love and courtship in such untraditional marriage-plot novels as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. By the time the course concludes with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, the marriages and courtships that we see will be distinctly modern in the form that they take and in the complexity and divorces that they bring with them.

Faculty

The Literature of Fact: Journalism and Beyond

Open, Seminar—Year

The last 60 years have been boom times for nonfiction writing. From investigative reporting to memoirs, the literature of fact has thrived. Writers have found that, as the late Tom Wolfe observed, it is possible to turn out nonfiction as lively as fiction and, in the process, capture the history of one’s own times. The aim of this course is to explore nonfiction in a variety of forms and for students to write nonfiction of their own. The course will focus on basic reporting, memoirs, op-eds, reviews, profiles, and long-form journalism. Students will do writing of their own that matches the kind of writing being studied at the time. The course will begin by emphasizing writing technique and move on to longer assignments in which research, interviews, and legwork play an increasingly important role. The writers studied will range from James Baldwin and George Orwell to Joan Didion and Gay Talese. This course is not for students with remedial writing problems or with difficulty meeting deadlines. At the time of their interviews, students must bring with them short samples of their written work.

Faculty

The Marriage Plot: Love and Romance in American and English Fiction

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

“Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had,” Charlotte Brontë’s title character exclaims in the concluding chapter of Jane Eyre. Jane’s wedding may be quiet, but the steps leading up to her marriage with a man who once employed her as a governess are tumultuous. With the publication of Jane Eyre, we have left behind the early marriage-plot novel in which a series of comic misunderstandings pave the way for a joyous wedding. This course will begin with such classic marriage-plot novels as Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But the course will also look at love and courtship in untraditional marriage-plot novels such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. By the time the course concludes with Jeffrey Eugenides’s contemporary novel, The Marriage Plot, the marriages and courtships we see will be distinctly modern in the form that they take and, equally significant, in the complexity and uncertainty that they bring with them. 

Faculty

The Marriage Plot: Love and Romance in Classic American and English Fiction

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

“Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had,” Charlotte Bronte’s title character exclaims in the concluding chapter of Jane Eyre. Jane’s wedding is quiet, but the steps leading up to her marriage with the man who once employed her as a governess are tumultuous. By the time of Jane Eyre, we are far from the early marriage-plot novel in which suitors, proposals, and comic misunderstandings pave the way for a joyous wedding. This course is designed to follow the evolution of the marriage plot in classic 19th- and 20th-century American and English fiction. The course opens with Jane Austen’s Emma and closes with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The readings are designed to explore how both the marriage ideal and the failings of marriage have been fictionally depicted over two centuries. The first half of the course centers on a series of paired American and English novels: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The second half of the course focuses on how American variations of the marriage-plot novel have expanded the tradition and given it new reach. The books studied in the second half of the course will include Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Faculty