I found out from a Facebook post that famed literary critic J. Hillis Miller had died of Covid on Feb. 7 at age 92. Professor Miller was my dissertation advisor at UC Irvine, where I was in graduate school for most of the ‘90’s. By the time I’d enrolled in his seminar, he’d been a professor for four decades, a bearded and bespectacled presence with a quiet voice and genial manner. The word “avuncular” seemed invented just for him. He retired from full-time teaching in 2001, a year after I’d filed my dissertation and moved back east for teaching jobs with my new husband, so I must have been one of his last advisees at UCI.
Others recall in glowingly intimate terms their relationship with Hillis Miller, their conversations over the years, their deepening friendship with him. I, on the other hand, never knew whether to call him Hillis or Professor Miller. My relationship with him was formal, respectful, more distant than familiar. I didn’t ask him about his personal life and he didn’t ask me about mine. Still, his influence on me is indelible and the news of his death has me reflecting on what it means to lose someone from one’s past who once loomed large in one’s world.
It took me a long time not to feel like an interloper in graduate school, at a place renowned for literary theory largely owing to Miller’s tenure there and his having brought Jacques Derrida and other luminaries to teach there as well. I had been an English major in college and had taken a couple of literary theory courses my senior year, on the basis of which I decided I might like to continue on to get a Ph.D. with only vague notions about what preparing for a career in academia really meant. I don’t remember the name of that first seminar, but I do remember the excruciating self-consciousness I felt while reading a draft of my paper on Faulkner’s Light in August out loud to a room full of more advanced graduate students who I assumed were mocking or judging me, and Professor Miller’s response, which was neither criticism nor praise, but a further riffing on the nascent ideas I’d presented. His comments showing that he’d been listening and took me seriously calmed my pounding heart.
I didn’t have any models for how to interact with professors other than as elders deserving of respect and not to be imposed on too much. It was surprising to hear of a graduate student at UCLA whose advisor would call her up and go on walks with her to discuss a chapter in great detail. Only much later, in my second job out of graduate school, did I find a mentor like that. If I had to name what I got from Professor Miller, I guess it would be permission to attend closely to figurative language in a way that made that kind of close reading feel not only worthwhile, but necessary, really the only way to read. In his books and lectures, there was a delight in the full amplitude of language that resonated with me. In a second seminar I took with him, this one on the late works of Henry James, I wrote my paper on the phrase “there you are” as uttered by the main characters in The Wings of the Dove, a leitmotif that signals the precarious and shifting social, class, romantic, and representational positions of the characters in relation to each other. When he asked to keep a copy of the paper for his files, I was of course flattered and felt affirmed. Only later did I wonder, shouldn’t he have encouraged me to publish it and given me feedback about how to go about it? Perhaps he assumed I already knew how to do that.
In the course of his lectures, Professor Miller would say, “as you know” or “as you recall” as he dropped some literary or philosophical reference or recounted a scene from a work that wasn’t on the syllabus but is nonetheless on the syllabus. It was a sleight of hand, a genteel way of saying, “you should know this” or “if you don’t know this, make note of it..” The way he said it, it felt like an invitation and I took it, stepped into the room and nodded along like I knew. By the time I graduated with degree in hand, I recognized that if I wasn’t an academic star, I was also no slouch. The work I did under his tutelage was proof that I, too, could do it.
Professor Miller had more clear evidence of his influence and impact than most teachers do, as many of his students went on to their own illustrious academic careers. It must have been enormously gratifying. In one conversation, I must have said something about feeling behind in my preparation for teaching a class. He told an anecdote, chuckling, about how he learned early on in his own teaching career to fake it by telling the class, now let’s turn to the first page. He was, of course, infamous for dwelling on a single passage in a literary work for weeks at a time, unspooling the narrative threads with great relish. I am but a distant planet in the galaxy of his legacy, but I am where I am, intellectually and professionally, in part because of the time I spent with him decades ago in southern California. RIP Professor Miller. You cast much light in your time with us.