Research

Current Projects

Age of Miracles: Media and Metaphysics in Postwar American Fiction

My current book project uses novels by Don DeLillo, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace to trace the emergence of a contemporary conflation of technology and theology in the American popular consciousness. To see this conflation, one need only observe how the kind of omniscience and omnipotence once reserved for God are now seemingly available to anyone with an iPhone, or the way that “cloud computing” is marketed as a kind of data heaven (when in fact it’s neither immaterial, nor celestial, nor eternal, but rather a collection of servers, each roughly the size of a pizza box, here on earth). Age of Miracles intervenes in two critical conversations, about the roles of faith and technology in American fiction after 1945, and aims to start a third, about what constitutes “the real” in American literary realism.

After Existentialism: Meaning in a Digital Age

A planned second project, tentatively entitled After Existentialism: Meaning in a Digital Age, argues that the present moment is best described as one of simultaneity—that is, an era characterized not just by a plurality of beliefs, but by an increasingly jumbled admixture of literary movements, styles, and genres, and old and new media, as well as by the real-time palimpsest of competing narratives in the news and on social media. Using methodologies from literary criticism, book history, media studies, I argue that such simultaneity has profound implications for the concepts of meaning and authority, as they apply to a variety of American contexts, including literary, educational, cultural, and political realms.

Past Highlights

Flannery O’Connor, TV, and Teaching First-Year Composition

My work on Flannery O’Connor has been supported by the NEH and the Collegeville Institute. An article adapted from the first chapter of Age of Miracles, entitled “Manichaeism and the Movies: Flannery O’Connor and the Roman Catholic Response to Film and Television at Midcentury,” received the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers’ Meringoff Nonfiction Award and was published in Literary Imagination (Oxford Journals) in 2014.

Recently, I learned at a conference that “Manichaeism and the Movies” has been used in composition classes at Catholic University of America for the past four years as a model of clear, compelling academic writing. “Without fail, my students remark on the article’s clarity and ability to engage their interest, even though most of them are not English majors, are unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor, and have never seen or heard the term ‘Manichaeism’ before reading the article’s title,” said PhD candidate and Teaching Fellow Jessica Schnepp. “Students are visibly energized when they discover through Dr. Nelson’s article that even a researched argument is—or should be—a form of storytelling. Their careful close reading and modeling of her argument motivates them to approach their own with more clarity, precision, personal investment—and yes, even joy. For this, I am truly grateful, and I have recommended Dr. Nelson’s academic writing to my colleagues for use in their own writing classes.”

Seeing is Believing,” an essay on O’Connor’s ethics of vision (and the distinctions she drew between human and mechanical vision), was named one of Commonweal‘s Best Book Essays in June 2017.

 

Textual Criticism: Betty Wahl and Samuel Beckett

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For my MA thesis at the Editorial Institute under the direction of Christopher Ricks, I prepared a critical edition of stories by mid-20th-century American writer Betty Wahl, several of which were later reprinted or published for the first time in The Antioch ReviewThe Southern Review, and The Recorder: The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society. In 2010, I edited Samuel Beckett’s More Pricks than Kicks for Faber and Faber, making an authoritative text of Beckett’s first published book widely available to readers and scholars for the first time.