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 from COVID-19.[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 was 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: 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 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. 2: April 15–May 15, 2020

Coronavirus Think Pieces

Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations.”

Jodi Dean, “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?”

Ibram X. Kendi, “We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic.”

David Harvey, “We Need a Collective Response to the Collective Dilemma of Coronavirus.”

Richard Grusin, “Radical Mediation, COVID Masks, Revolutionary Collectivity.”

Charles Stross, “It’ll All Be Over by Christmas.”

Laurie Penny, “Productivity Is Not Working.”

Corey Robin, “Comrades.”

Masha Gessen on the present.

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End of the Semester Links, Spring 2017

It’s been a long year, long for many reasons, but here’s a backlog of some links. (Some very good news is imminent. . . .)

 

Nuclear and Environmental

New York Times Editorial Board, “The Finger on the Nuclear Button.”

Rebecca Savranksy, “US May Launch Strike if North Korea Moves to Test Nuclear Weapon.”

Kaveh Waddell, “What Happens if a Nuclear Bomb Goes Off in Manhattan.”

Radiolab, “Nukes.”

Laurel Wamsley, “Digitization Unearths New Data From Cold War-Era Nuclear Test Films.”

Michael Biesecker and John Flesher, “President Trump Institutes Media Blackout at EPA.”

Brian Kahn, “The EPA Has Started to Remove Obama-Era Information.”

Zoë Schlanger, “Hackers Downloaded US Government Climate Data and Stored It on European Servers as Trump Was Being Inaugurated.”

Cass R. Sunstein, “Making Sense of Trump’s Order on Climate Change.”

Laurie Penny, “The Slow Confiscation of Everything.”

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Beginning of the Semester Links, Spring 2017

Nuclear and Environment

Stephen Hawking, “This Is the Most Dangerous Time for Our Planet.”

Andrew Bast, “Unpredictable,” review of Nuclear Politics: The Strategic Causes of Nuclear Proliferation, by By Nuno P. Monteiro and Alexandre Debs.

Joe Romm, “Priebus Confirms That Climate Denial Will Be the Official Policy of Trump’s Administration.”

Natasha Geiling, “Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Deletes Accurate Climate Science from Agency Webpage.”

Madeline Conway, “Trump Threatens to Upend US Nuclear Weapons Policy.”

Sam Stein, “Trump Releases Letter From Putin Amid Talk Of Nuclear Arms Race.”

Robinson Meyer, “Human Extinction Isn’t That Unlikely.”

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“The Function of Videogame Criticism” in the b2 Review

I have just published a review of Ian Bogost’s How to Talk about Videogames (2015),“The Function of Videogame Criticism,” in The b2 ReviewThe review signals a slightly new direction in my work–toward game studies–and will be the first of three pieces of videogame criticism that will appear in 2016. I have been teaching games for the past few years, so I am excited to be writing about them now.

Mid-Summer Links 2016

Nuclear and Environment

Naomi Klein, “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World.”

Aamna Mohdin, “Fearing a Nuclear Terror Attack, Belgium Is Giving Iodine Pills to Its Entire Population.”

Annabell Shark, “MoMA, The Bomb and the Abstract Expressionists.”

Alex Wellerstein, “The Demon Core and the Strange Death of Louis Slotin.”

Lake Chad disappearing over the past fifty years.

Continent 5.2.

And RDS-37 Soviet hydrogen bomb test (1955).

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An Interview with Jonathan Arac

2.cover (1)

I just published “An Interview with Jonathan Arac” in the most recent issue of boundary 2. I am honored to have had the chance to interview Arac, who has been such a important mentor to me in so many ways. An even further honor is having the interview appear in an issue with work by Tom Eyers, David Golumbia, McKenzie Wark, and others, along with Bruce Robbins’s interview of Orhan Pamuk and Jeffrey J. Williams’s interview of Wai Chee Dimock. What a fantastic issue.

Spring Break Links 2016

It has been a very busy past few months, and my links have suffered. But spring break has provided some lovely, unencumbered time, so here are many, many links (futilely) attempting to catch up with what’s been happening in the world. (In the interest of space, I’ve also passed over some of the more visible recent stories.)

 

Nuclear and Environmental

Paul Krugman, “Republicans’ Climate Change Denial Denial.”

Democracy Now, “Naomi Klein on Paris Summit: Leaders’ Inaction on Climate Crisis Is ‘Violence” Against the Planet.”

Adrienne LaFrance, “The Chilling Regularity of Mass Extinctions.”

Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism.

Sebastian Anthony, “Scientists Discover an Ocean 400 Miles Beneath Our Feet that Could Fill Our Oceans Three Times Over.”

Kylie Mohr, “Apocalypse Chow: We Tried Televangelist Jim Bakker’s ‘Survival Food.'”

Alex Trembath, “Are You and Upwinger or a Downwinger?”

Eric Bradner, “Newly Released Documents Reveal US Cold War Nuclear Target List.”

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