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 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.

MLA 2021: Twenty-First-Century Forms

For this year’s Modern Language Association Convention, to be held virtually from January 7–10, 2021, I organized and will be speaking on a roundtable on Twenty-First-Century Forms, along with Amy Sara Carroll, Racheal Fest, Christian P. Haines, Hyemin Kim, and Eric Loy. I have included the information about the panel and, below that, full abstracts from each speaker.

181. Twenty-First-Century Forms

Thursday, January 7, 2020, 7:00 – 8:15 p.m. (EST)

If the novel and lyric poem have become residual forms, what literary forms are emerging in contemporaneity? Participants explore emergent literary forms of the twenty-first century and their relationship with, instantiation in, or remediation by other (digital) media: film, television, video, graphic narrative, video games, transmedia, or other hybrid, novel, or megatextual forms.

Speakers
Amy Sara Carroll (U of California, San Diego)
Bradley Fest (Hartwick C)
Racheal Fest (State U of New York, Oneonta)
Christian Haines (Penn State U, University Park)
Hyemin Kim (Baruch C, City U of New York)
Eric Loy (U of Rochester)

Presiding
Bradley Fest (Hartwick C)


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Links in the Time of Coronavirus, Vol. 5: July 16–August 15, 2020

Black Lives Matter

Ishmael Reed, “America’s Criminal Justice System and Me.”

Anthony Bogues, “Black Lives Matter and the Moment of the Now.”

Colin Dayan, “Police Power and Can’t Breathe.”

Dwight Garner, “Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ about Our Abiding Sin.”

Jane Hu, “The Second Act of Social-Media Activism.”

Jonathan Levinson and Conrad Wilson, “Federal Law Enforcement Use Unmarked Vehicles to Grab Protesters off Portland Streets.”

Shane Harris, “DHS Compiled ‘Intelligence Reports’ on Journalists Who Published Leaked Documents.”

Ken Klippenstein, “The Border Patrol Was Responsible for an Arrest in Portland.”

Katie Shepherd and Mark Berman, “‘It Was Like Being Preyed upon’: Portland Protesters Say Federal Officers in Unmarked Vans Are Detaining Them.”

Charlie Warzel, “50 Nights of Unrest in Portland.”

Conrad Wilson, Dirk Vanderhart, and Suzanne Nuyen, “Oregon Sues Federal Agencies for Grabbing up Protesters off the Streets.”

Gillian Flaccus, “Judge Blocks US Agents from Arresting Observers in Portland.”

Richard Read, “Out of Portland Tear Gas, an Apparition Emerges, Capturing the Imagination of Protesters.”

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End of the Semester Links, Fall 2018

Nuclear and Environmental

Fourth National Climate Assessment.

Deconstructed, “Will the US Ever Give Up Its Nukes?”

“Trump Says US Will Withdraw from Nuclear Deal with Russia.”

Wilfred Wan, “The Nuclear Threat Is Rising: Europe Cannot Just Stand and Watch.”

Will Steffen, et al, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.”

Kate Aronoff, “‘Hothouse Earth’ Co-Author: The Problem Is Neoliberal Economics” and “With a Green New Deal, Here’s What the World Could Look Like for the Next Generation.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, “To Slow Down Climate Change, We Need to Take On Capitalism.”

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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.

Beginning of the Semester Links

Now that the semester is starting, I will have less time to read things on the internet. So here’s one last link dump for the summer.

 

Nuclear and Environment

Maria Temming, “Geoengineering Won’t Save Us: Why It Can’t Halt the Effects of Climage Change by Itself.”

Claire L. Evans, “Climate Change Is so Dire We Need a New Kind of Science Fiction to Change It.”

Alan Taylor, “A World without People.”

Bill McKibben, “The Pope and the Planet.”

Mark Soderstrom, “Unequal Universes.”

And Kenneth Chang, “World Will not End Next Month, NASA Says.”

Brandon Shimoda, ed., The Volta, no. 56, and April Naoko Heck, “Dispatch from Hiroshima.”

Sam Stein, “July Was The Hottest Month Ever; Cable News Barely Noticed.”

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End of the Semester Links, Fall 2014

I have been understandably busy with the end of a fun and challenging semester. So there are quite a few links that have built up.

 

Nuclear and Environment

William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “US Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms.”

Robert Burns, “Air Force: Hagel Departure Won’t Slow Nuke Reforms.”

Mark Memmot, “Nun Who Broke Into Nuclear Complex Gets 35-Month Jail Term.”

Barbara Starr, “Navy Investigation Under Way after Female Officers Filmed.”

Eric Holthaus, “Seventy–Seven Zero–Inches of Snow for Buffalo as Winter Overpowers America.”

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Many September Links

As predicted, I have been quite busy indeed and have not had a chance to post anything over the past couple of weeks. A bunch of fascinating stuff has been happening, a bunch of interesting books are coming out, etc., so I’m sad that I’ve been remiss in my duties. Hopefully this large batch of links will make up for that.

 

Apocalypse and After

George Dvorsky, “Have Humans Already Conquered the Threat of Extinction?”

Or not. Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander, “Limits to Growth Was Right: New Research Shows We’re Nearing Collapse.”

One of the first reviews of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

Jessica Corbett and Ethan Corey, “5 Crucial Lessons for the Left from Naomi Klein’s New Book.”

Eric Holthaus, “New Study Links Polar Vortex to Climate Change.”

Eugene Thacker on Radiolab.

And who knows where to put this one: Alison Flood, “Margaret Atwood’s New Work Will Remain Unseen for a Century.”

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