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Sweet Compulsion

An unlooked-for career as a Milton scholar inspires and rewards

Mary NyquistWhen BA alumna Mary Nyquist was elected Honored Scholar of the Milton Society of America for 2012, the University of Toronto professor was at once thrilled and stunned. As she noted at the time, “I had not in any way expected this recognition of my work on Milton, which has taken up contentious issues and often reaches conclusions that are not welcome to Miltonists.” The feminist, interdisciplinary scholar has co-edited two collections of essays on Milton, the classic Re-membering Milton (1988) and 2012's Milton and Questions of History, and her own published essays have been influential and, clearly, well-respected. In last year’s Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death (University of Chicago Press), Nyquist telescopes out from Milton to address how canonical texts of political thought (Aristotle to Locke) relate to literary texts (Euripides to Montaigne) through an “antityranny discourse” which protests political slavery but excuses material, racialized slavery. A collection of her Milton essays is in the works.

1. You, like many University students, came from out-state Minnesota. What was it like to arrive at this urban campus?

Mora, where I grew up, was a small, predominately rural, Scandinavian village. When I first moved to Minneapolis I missed Mora dreadfully—the sense of community, the countryside, my sisters and friends, the horses at the stables where I had worked. Luckily, a fellow undergraduate who had grown up in the Twin Cities befriended me right away and helped me figure out how to get around the campus and the city. Though the large classes were somewhat alienating, I also found them to be extremely exhilarating. For the first time in my life, I was thoroughly anonymous, and in retrospect I believe that the experience of anonymity was critical to my development. At the U I could be passionately engaged in intellectual and cultural pursuits without having to worry about stereotyping or negative social responses, and this enabled me to develop intellectually in ways I could not otherwise have done. Doing my undergraduate degree at the U during the era of the Vietnam War also helped to shape me politically, as I became involved in the anti-war movement and ongoing anti-racist struggles.

2. Did you always know you wanted to be an English major?

When I began my undergraduate studies I was torn between music and literature. The study of literature won out, but music has continued to be an important part of my life, and when I teach poetry I always emphasize interconnections between music—rap, jazz, classical, whatever—and the rhythms and sounds of poetry. What initially drew me to Milton’s poetry in the class I took with Professor Toni McNaron was its musicality, which blew me away and still does.

3. What English professors do you remember most?

Professor McNaron’s course on Milton was a marvelous experience. Professor Marjorie Durham was another extraordinarily gifted teacher. I took several courses with her, and she became the supervisor for my honor’s thesis, which focused on the Victorian and early modern novel. Professors Sarah Youngblood (modernism) and Rosalie Rosenberg (Shakespeare) were also major influences. It was at the suggestion of Professors Durham, Rosenberg, and Samuel Monk that I applied to graduate school; the idea would never have crossed my own mind, as I was completely unfamiliar with the academy. Professor Monk suggested that I do graduate work at the University of Toronto, where the famous Northrop Frye taught. I feel an ongoing sense of deep indebtedness to all of my professors at the University of Minnesota not only in the Department of English but also in Humanities. The education I received was superb.

4. What new projects do you have in mind? 

Owing to a substantial Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grant I received this spring, I am planning to do a few interrelated projects, all multidisciplinary, under the rubric “Barbarism, Animality, and Rights.” One involves a book on ritual practices of reverence or respect as they relate to Western conceptions of “servility” (practices often stigmatized as abjectly animalistic or blasphemous) and “liberty” (often demonstrated by a rejection of "servile" behaviours).  Another focuses on tyranny and tyrannicide in Shakespeare’s dramas.

5. What are you reading or have you read recently that you think is great?

Two relatively recent literary works I like recommending to students and friends are by Canadians from Montreal: Cockroach by Rawi Hage and Incendies (a drama made into a powerful film and translated into English as Scorched) by Wajdi Mouawad. For anyone who likes short stories, I would recommend This Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Just last week I read Burnt Shadows, an ambitious, extremely moving novel by Kamila Shamsie; it takes a small set of characters from the bombing of Nagasaki through warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq into post-9/11 America. Though this description makes it sound rather clunky, it’s actually a beautifully written meditation on the interconnectedness of individual and political, transnational decisions and actions. I am urging everyone I know to read it!


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