- Reading (Deconstructing) J. Hillis Miller:Humanist and Pluralist
In his day, J. Hillis Miller, now in his eighty-eighth year, was one of the most influential of literary scholars, among the leaders in introducing phenomenology and, later, deconstruction to an Anglo-American audience. His early books The Disappearance of God (1963), Poets of Reality (1965), and The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968) were greatly influenced by Georges Poulet and the Geneva school. Fiction and Repetition (1982) was written under the umbrella of Derridean Deconstruction. All four were required reading for a generation of graduate students.
I wrote a full chapter on what we might now call Miller’s early work and what was certainly his most influential period in my The Humanistic Heritage: Theories of the English Novel from James to Hillis Miller; here I discussed his relationship to the Anglo-American tradition.
I cannot say that I have kept up with all of his more than thirty books. In 2005, Stanford University Press thought he had enough of a following to publish The J. Hillis Miller Reader, bringing together examples of his work with commentary by others on his work. With some regret, I wonder if a major press would do such a volume in 2015 or whether his place in the firmament has somewhat faded.
I saw Miller on occasion when I still went to MLA and at times when he still lived on the East Coast, and found him a generous colleague, which meant a great deal to me as young aspiring scholar working my way through the ranks. The first time I gave a plenary talk at a conference, he was one of the other speakers, and he made me feel welcome. Indeed, he contributed a fine essay on The Secret Sharer to the Bedford Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism edition of that work, which I edited in the [End Page 303] later 90s.
What attracted me to his criticism was his strong and lucid close readings of canonical novels; these readings showed an attention to the subtleties of language without losing empathy for what authors were trying to do. In his early books, he maintained a nice balance between the macrocosmic view and microcosmic view, what I have truncated in my own work to “Always historicize; always the text.” Later, as he belonged to theoretical communities that sometimes had a problematic relationship to primary texts and would zero in on a handful of passages in a novel, he did not lose the sense of the evolving novel.
The volume under review consists mostly of revisions of published essays and talks. On the whole, the volume does not cover new ground, but Miller’s nuanced arguments are a pleasure to read and his panoramic view of the theoretical mind-scape that still drives literary studies for some is impressive. Reflecting the breadth and depth of a man of prodigious learning, Communities in Fiction takes us on a tour of some of the stopping points that have been marked on the theoretical map these past fifty years.
In his opening chapter, “Theories of Community,” Miller reviews various definitions of community, but to me this seems a somewhat tangential introduction to what follows. Rather than present a compelling argument, he asks whether the novels he discusses represent “a true community” (17). His unremarkable conclusion is: “[A] ssumptions about the nature of individuality and intersubjectivity largely determine one’s idea about community” (17). The nominal subjects of the second through fifth of six chapters are mostly Victorian and early twentieth-century novels: Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset, Hardy’s The Return of the Native, Conrad’s Nostromo (by far the longest and perhaps the best, running nearly 100 pages, although it could have been somewhat shorter without losing its main points) and Woolf’s The Waves (perhaps the most rigorous chapter in terms of taut argument).
Miller has always stressed that his focus is on “how does meaning arise from the reader’s encounter with just these words on the page?” (Fiction and Repetition 3). While Miller draws...