Remembering J. Hillis Miller (1928–2021)

Screenshot of Skype interview on July 17, 2013. Bradley J. Fest, Pittsburgh, PA; J. Hillis Miller, Deer Isle, ME.

I was deeply saddened yesterday to learn that J. Hillis Miller, at the age of 92, has died.[1] Though I was never his student and only corresponded with him electronically via Skype and email, Hillis had been a powerful presence in my life since 2013 and over the years showed me unflagging (at time flabbergasting) generosity and support. I owe a great deal of my post-PhD intellectual and professional development to his influence, as I probably learned more about late twentieth-century literary criticism and theory from researching his work and conducting and collaboratively editing an interview with him than anything else I did in graduate school or since. Perhaps most importantly, however, in every exchange, Hillis was simply a model of grace and kindness. He represents for me a way of being gently in the world that I still look to as an aspirational ideal. He was not only an intellectual giant and an unparalleled reader and critic, J. Hillis Miller was a torch-bearer for what our profession—and the life of letters—could be at its best. His passing may very well mark the end of an era in United States intellectual culture and is a huge loss for the uncountable number of people he touched with his life and work.

When I think back to what should have been one of the most important memories of my career—my dissertation defense in April 2013—my primary recollection of that day is how it marked the beginning of my correspondence with Hillis. During the defense, in a discussion of my chapter on William Carlos Williams and its engagement with Hillis’s important 1966 edited collection on Williams’s work, along with that book’s recovery of the prose sections of Spring and All (1923), my dissertation chair, Jonathan Arac, suggested, “Why don’t you interview Miller? Would you be interested in doing that?”[2] My mind on many other things, understandably, I think I stammered out a, “Sure, yeah, um, that’d be great,” but I figured it was just an idea that burst briefly into the air during a public conversation, a possibility never to seriously be pursued, something that would fade imperceptibly away. I didn’t really give the possibility much more thought as I then spent the rest of the day celebrating my successful defense with my partner and brother, who had flown in for the occasion. So, it was with some surprise when, later that day, at a talk by Priscilla Wald in advance of her faculty seminar at the University of Pittsburgh’s Humanities Center, Jonathan came up to me and said, “I emailed Hillis and he already got back to me. He’s up for it. I’ll forward you the email and you can go from there.” (So: thank you Jonathan. See Robert T. Tally Jr.’s recent post on Jonathan Arac’s mentorship on the occasion of his retirement.)

Oh my. I had thought I was done with this huge task—writing a dissertation—and all of a sudden, I had what I felt was an even more daunting one: doing justice to the work of J. Hillis Miller. But I was up for it. Hillis and I corresponded and he, knowingly or not, immediately made me feel like interviewing him was something I could actually, like, do. And then I got to work. I read and read. I went on vacation to Rocky Point in Mexico with my brother and his family and spent the majority of the time reading. During my one day on the beach, I forgot to put sunscreen on my feet and they got very badly burned, which rendered me basically supine inside for the remainder of the trip. Which wasn’t so bad, as I spent it reading Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (1966) and The J. Hillis Miller Reader (ed. Julian Wolfreys, 2005) and Theory Now and Then (1991) and a lot of things surrounding his famous essay “The Critic as Host” (1977).[3] I read more, as much as I could, so much, but, as he had authored well over thirty books at the time, I also realized that I wasn’t going to be able to be exhaustive (as I have strived to be in subsequent interviews) if I had any hope of conducting the interview by July. And then I wrote some questions and figured out how to record a Skype call and Hillis and I talked and then I sat down to do the work of transcription and editing. And then he gave me his real gift: I got to see, just a little bit, what it was like for him to write, as we exchanged a couple drafts back and forth, editing the piece collaboratively. That interview, “Isn’t It a Beautiful Day? An Interview with J. Hillis Miller,” published in 2014 in boundary 2, is probably the publication of which I am the proudest and it’s the one I feel might have the most lasting import. It gives a glimpse on an entire intellectual world and speaks directly to many of the present concerns of that summer (the Snowden revelations, the ongoing crisis in the humanities, et cetera). (The interview was also reprinted in a collection of interviews with Hillis edited by Jonathan Y. Bayot, Reading Inside Out: Interviews and Conversations [2017].)

But that wasn’t the end of our correspondence. Year in and out, he supported me on my seemingly interminable quest to find a tenure-track job and also kept me in the collaborative loop, suggesting me as a respondent for a special two issues of the journal CounterText devoted to his book with Ranjan Ghosh, Thinking Literature across Continents (2016). That essay, “Reading Now and Again: Hyperarchivalism and Democracy in Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller’s Thinking Literature across Continents,” was published in 2018, and it represents for me an opportunity to think through his body of work (somewhat obliquely, admittedly) while also trying to respond directly and specifically to a small moment in that corpus.

And let me be clear: I was not a student, not a colleague at Johns Hopkins or Yale or the University of California Irvine, not a Victorianist nor a modernist; I was just a kind of random person he didn’t really know or have any connection with whom he graciously invited into his working world and kept supporting after the immediate work of the interview was over (and whom he could have reasonably told, at any point, “Alright, thanks, that was great, goodbye,” or even, “Go jump in a lake!”). I can only imagine the impact he has had on so many students, critics, scholars, and writers over the past sixty plus years if he was able to play such a large role in my life. And, as I’m writing this, I am also realizing that I’m in the midst of finalizing my spring 2021 syllabi (the semester is starting a few weeks later than normal because of the global pandemic) and just remembered that I had already, of course, put one of his essays on a draft of my ENGL 190 Introduction to Textual Analysis syllabus. I know that, for as long as I’m writing and reading, I will continue to think with him.[4] COVID-19 has taken so much from so many. I look forward to a time when I can again be in a classroom (without masks) sharing Hillis’s work with a new generation of readers. And I sincerely hope that one day I can look back on this particular moment as another turning point, when life went off in a new, unexpected, positive direction, a direction that, once again, changed everything.

Notes

[1] Eric Hayot, in a moving memory of Miller from Hayot’s first year at Yale, reports the cause of death. There has also already been an outpouring of grief, memory, and gratitude on Twitter: see Merve Emre, Harris Feinsod, @V21collective, and many others.

[2] See J. Hillis Miller, ed., William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966).

[3] I still feel a burning, aching pain on the tops of my feet when I think about Hillis’s discussion of Wallace Stevens in Poets of Reality. See J. Hillis Miler, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), 217–84.

[4] There are so many of his books that should be required reading, but I have definitely thought on multiple occasions that Reading Narrative (1998) is perhaps criminally under-read.

Links in the Time of Coronavirus, Vol. 10: December 16, 2020–January 15, 2021

Think Pieces on . . . Everything

Timothy Snyder, “The American Abyss.”

Jelani Cobb, “Georgia, Trump’s Insurrectionists, and Lost Causes.”

Mike Davis, “Riot on the Hill” and “Hopes for 2021?”

Blair McClendon, “Lost Lost Causes.”

Adam Kotsko, “An Apocalypse about Nothing.”

Yoni Appelbaum, “How America Ends.”

Gabriel R, “Trump the Despot.”

Franklin Foer, “The Triumph of Kleptocracy.”

William Callison and Quinn Slobodian, “Coronapolitics from the Reichstag to the Capitol.”

Masha Gessen, “The Trial of Donald Trump Must Tell the Full Story of the Capitol Insurrection.”

Leah Donnella, “How The Storming of the Capitol Was — And Wasn’t — About Police.”

Eric Fretwell, “From Lynchings to the Capitol: Racism and the Violence of Revelry.”

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Recording of Twenty-First-Century Forms at MLA 2021

If you attended the virtual 2021 Modern Language Association Conference but were unable to come to the roundtable I organized, Twenty-First-Century Forms, you can watch a recording of it here (I believe for about six weeks). The speakers were (in order): myself, Amy Sara Carroll, Racheal Fest, Christian P. Haines, Hyemin Kim, and Eric Loy. For more information, see my previous post.

“2020.01,” “2020.02,” “2020.03,” “2020.04,” “2020.05,” and “2020.06” in Always Crashing

I didn’t get a lot of writing done this year, but some of the little I did is out today near its close. I am thrilled and honored to have the first of my pandemic sonnets—“2020.01,” “2020.02,” “2020.03,” “2020.04,” “2020.05,” and “2020.06”—in the online arm of Always Crashing. I also had important poems from the sonnet project, including the “long sonnet” “2016.36: Preface,” out in issue three of Always Crashing earlier this year. Thanks so much to the editors’ ongoing support of my work and this project.

Links in the Time of Coronavirus, Vol. 9: November 16–December 15, 2020

Coronavirus

Sarah Zhang, “The End of the Pandemic Is Now in Sight.”

Katie Thomas, “New Pfizer Results: Coronavirus Vaccine Is Safe and 95% Effective.”

Meredith Wadman, “Fever, Aches from Pfizer, Moderna Jabs Aren’t Dangerous but May Be Intense for Some.”

Zeynep Tufekci, “The Pandemic Heroes Who Gave Us the Gift of Time and Gift of Information.”

Abby Goodnough, “Long-Term-Care Residents and Health Workers Should Get Vaccine First, C.D.C. Panel Says.”

Sharon LaFraniere, Katie Thomas, and Noah Weiland, “Trump Administration Officials Passed when Pfizer Offered Months Ago to Sell the US More Vaccine Doses.”

Thomas R. Frieden, “We Know How to Beat COVID-19. We Just Don’t Do It.”

Bruce Robbins, “Return of the Plague.”

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“Dead Horse Bay” and “Archives of Winter” in Poetics for the More-than-Human World Anthology

“Dead Horse Bay” and “Archives of Winter,” poems from my current ongoing project, Postrock, have been reprinted in Poetics for the More-than-Human World: An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary, edited by Mary Newell, Bernard Quetchenbach, and Sarah Nolan and published by Spuyten Duyvil.

The anthology was originally published online as a special issue of Dispatches from the Poetry Wars“Poetics for the More-than-Human World: An Anthology of Poetry and Commentary.” Other contributors include Rae ArmantroutRachel Blau DuPlessisJane HirshfieldCynthia HogueAngela HumeMichael McClureJohn ShoptawStephanie StricklandHarriet TarloEdwin Torres, and many, many others.

Links in the Time of Coronavirus, Vol. 8: October 16–November 15, 2020

The University of Pittsburgh is in the background.

Politics, Economics, and Trump

Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, “Biden Wins Presidency, Ending Four Tumultuous Years Under Trump.”

Daniel Strauss and Lauren Gambino, “Kamala Harris Makes History as First Woman of Color Elected US Vice President.”

Bill McKibben, “This Election Isn’t about the Next Four Years. It’s about the Next Four Millennia.”

Naomi Klein, “We Were Told Joe Biden Was the ‘Safe Choice.’ But It Was Risky to Offer so Little.”

Jelani Cobb, “The Election Is a Morality Play in Which Biden Must Defeat Not Only Trump but Trumpism.”

Astead W. Herndon, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Biden’s Win, House Losses, and What’s Next for the Left.”

Tom McCarthy, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ends Truce by Warning ‘Incompetent’ Democratic Party.”

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Links in the Time of Coronavirus, Vol. 7: September 16–October 15, 2020

Coronavirus

Georgina Hayes, “Face Masks Could Be Giving People Covid-19 Immunity, Researchers Suggest.”

Devon Price, “Do You Have ‘Zoom Fatigue’ or Is It Existentially Crushing to Pretend Life Is Normal as the World Burns?”

Eva Hagberg, “The Pandemic Has Remade Friendship.”

And “Cruise Ships Dismantled for Scrap after Pandemic Sinks Industry.”

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Links in the Time of Coronavirus, Vol. 6: August 16–September 15, 2020

Black Lives Matter

Inae Oh, “Wisconsin Police Shot Jacob Blake in ‘Broad Daylight.'”

Peter Beaumont, “Kenosha: Teen Charged with Murder after Two Black Lives Matter Protesters Killed.”

Adam Serwer, “The New Reconstruction.”

Jasmyn Wimbish and Jack Maloney, “NBA Protest, Live Updates: Schedule Announced for Resumption of Playoffs on Saturday, Sunday.”

Shams Charania, “Sources: LeBron James Sought Out Barack Obama for Advice to Players.”

Melissa Gira Grant, “Far-Right Militias Are Learning Impunity From the Cops.”

Hallie Golden, Mike Baker, and Adam Goldman, “Suspect in Fatal Portland Shooting Is Killed by Officers During Arrest.”

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