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Understanding Steven Millhauser

Earl G. Ingersoll

Publication Year: 2014

Earl Ingersoll introduces the fiction of Steven Millhauser, whose distinguished career of more than four decades includes eight books of short fiction and four novels, the latest being the Pulitzer Prize–winning Martin Dressler (1996). In Understanding Steven Millhauser, Ingersoll explores Millhauser’s twelve books chronologically, revealing the development of the thematic interests and narrative strategies of a major contemporary American writer and a master of fiction who cares as deeply about his craft as the modernists did earlier in the past century. While most examinations of an author’s work begin with at least a biographical sketch, Ingersoll has faced distinct challenges because Millhauser has resisted efforts to read his fiction through the lens of his biography. Responding to an interviewer’s request for a brief biography, Millhauser provided the succinct “1943–.” Part of such resistance, Ingersoll argues, arises from Millhauser’s belief that if readers have too many questions about an author’s work, the author has failed and no amount of response can redress that failure. Millhauser’s central characters, such as August Eschenburg and J. Franklin Payne, are often themselves artists or technicians who are “overreachers,” and Ingersoll shows that Millhauser’s early expressions of literary realism have given way to interest in departures from the “real.” For Millhauser, “stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams.” Millhauser’s strength is the ability to sustain obsessions because works of fiction succeed insofar as they are able to supplant reality. As a master fabulist, Ingersoll argues, Millhauser is preoccupied with extravagance both in the subject matter of his fiction and in his style. Whether it is Martin Dressler doing himself in by designing and constructing increasingly complex hotels or the miniaturists in the short story “Cathay” pushing their impulse to extremes, past the eye’s ability to see their art objects, Millhauser’s fiction is full of such an impulse, which can produce prolific artists as well as compulsive lunatics. The triumph of Millhauser’s craft, Ingersoll shows, is that it merges a fascination with the relationship between imagination and experience with a precise and allusive prose to produce works seamlessly joining the everyday with the radical and fantastic, in forms ranging from travelogues of the imagination to works merging the waking world with the world of dreams.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press

Series: Understanding Contemporary American Literature

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

Series Editor’s Preface

Linda Wagner-Martin

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pp. vii-viii

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Chapter 1: Understanding Steven Millhauser

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pp. 1-14

If ever there was a contemporary author who needed a book in the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series, Steven Millhauser is that writer. With the publication of his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972)...

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Chapter 2: Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright

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pp. 15-26

From the full title of Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, readers expect a literary biography, complete with an apparent biographer, turning Millhauser into someone who “edited” the work for publication. Millhauser was well aware of the similarities...

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Chapter 3: Portrait of a Romantic

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pp. 27-34

The success of Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, contributed measurably to the favorable response to Portrait of a Romantic (1977).1 The novel begins fittingly in an unnamed Connecticut town,2 as did the first novel, and clearly this second novel is exploring another part of Millhauser country. The...

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Chapter 4: From the Realm of Morpheus

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pp. 35-42

Steven Millhauser’s third novel appeared almost a decade after Portrait of a Romantic (1986). As Danielle Alexander notes, Knopf offered to publish From the Realm of Morpheus, but only if the author was willing to make cuts in the manuscript, and Millhauser was unwilling. Although his dedication to...

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Chapter 5: In the Penny Arcade

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pp. 43-55

After the high expectations generated by his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, the second novel, Portrait of a Romantic (1977), was less well received. Although it might be understandable if he had some doubts about continuing in that genre, Millhauser spent almost a decade working on his third novel, In the...

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Chapter 6: The Barnum Museum

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pp. 56-65

Like In the Penny Arcade, The Barnum Museum (1990) brings together fiction of varying lengths and raises the issue of form. Although length is obviously no reliable gauge of a story’s significance, the longer stories in The Barnum Museum are likely to impress readers the most. The collection begins, for example...

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Chapter 7: Little Kingdoms

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pp. 66-79

Little Kingdoms (1993) once again raises issues of form in Steven Millhauser’s fiction. This first of two collections of novellas is a reminder that he has published twice as many novellas as novels and published many more stories than novels and novellas combined. Despite the customary misconception that a...

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Chapter 8: Martin Dressler

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pp. 80-88

Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Martin Dressler (1996), will remind readers of his earlier novels such as Edwin Mullhouse and shorter fiction such as “August Eschenburg” and “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” Martin Dressler is a bildungsroman, following the development of yet another self-immersed...

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Chapter 9: The Knife Thrower and Other Stories

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pp. 89-100

In the range of its subjects and its approaches to fiction, The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1999) offers a collection of stories that the author’s readers will identify as “classic Millhauser.” The collection brings together a dozen stories providing a cornucopia of what Millhauser had been publishing in magazines...

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Chapter 10: Enchanted Night: A Novella

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pp. 101-105

Enchanted Night is unique among Steven Millhauser’s novellas. Unlike the three in Little Kingdoms or in The King in the Tree, Enchanted Night is the only novella Millhauser has published by itself. At one hundred pages Enchanted Night is about the size of “The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne,”...

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Chapter 11: The King in the Tree

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pp. 106-113

The combination of the three novellas in The King in the Tree is likely to pique the reader’s curiosity, just as the organization of short stories in a collection such as In the Penny Arcade raises questions of how the stories fit together. Reviewers generally agreed the three novellas were dark renditions of...

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Chapter 12: Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories

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pp. 114-125

Readers may be surprised to begin Dangerous Laughter (2008) with “Cat ’n’ Mouse,” under the rubric “Opening Cartoon.” Some may wonder: If the first selection is the “Opening Cartoon,” will the stories to follow also be “cartoons”? Is Millhauser himself playing “cat ’n’ mouse” with his readers by beginning...

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Chapter 13: We Others: New and Selected Stories

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pp. 126-132

We Others: New and Selected Stories (2011) marks a milestone in Steven Millhauser’s career. Like Dangerous Laughter, this collection was published by Knopf, the publisher of Edwin Mullhouse, and long respected for the fiction the press publishes. Additionally the “New and Selected” organization...


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pp. 133-140

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 141-144


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pp. 145-148

E-ISBN-13: 9781611173093
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611173086

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Understanding Contemporary American Literature

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Subject Headings

  • Millhauser, Steven -- Criticism and interpretation.
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