J. Hillis Miller, a literary critic who helped to revolutionize the study of literature, died on Feb. 7 at his home in Sedgwick. He was 92.
An immensely productive and influential literary critic and theorist over a period of nearly seventy years as well as a remarkably generous and effective mentor to several generations of doctoral students in literary studies, including many of the best-known figures in the field, Professor Miller, made tremendous contributions to the humanities at The University of California, Irvine (UCI) as scholar, as teacher, and as campus citizen.
Miller was born in Newport News, Virginia, on March 5, 1928 to Nell Martin and J. Hillis Miller Sr. His mother was a homemaker and his father a Baptist minister who was professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary, and would go on to serve as the president of the University of Florida. Professor Miller received his B.A. from Oberlin College and the Ph.D. from Harvard University (1952)
Miller’s path traversed not one but at least four careers. The first of these was his nearly twenty years at Johns Hopkins University (1953-1972) where he distinguished himself as a talented scholar of Victorian literature and as the American “ambassador”, and himself an important member of the Geneva School of literary theory. His second career spanned his years at Yale University (1972-1986) where he gained fame as a member of the “Yale School” of deconstructive literary criticism. Professor Miller was known as the “Yale School” member willing to explain “deconstruction” to a wider world, including efforts in Newsweek and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The third career would be his years (1986-2001) as indefatigable distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCI where he, along with Jacques Derrida (whom Professor Miller brought to UCI), was the main shaper of UCI’s reputation as a center for the rigorous study of “theory.” It was during these years that the highest ranked Ph.D. programs at UCI were all in Humanities, in great part due to Professor Miller’s stature and to his successful recruiting of other major scholars. But his fourth career would be his years since retirement. Professor Miller’s achievements in “retirement” constituted what would be a full and very distinguished scholarly career for lesser mortals. This is the case not only in regard to the volume of publications—at least fifteen books, with more in production, and numerous articles—and, for a good number of years, an international lecturing schedule (particularly in China) that many a younger scholar would not be able to keep up with. It is also true of Professor Miller’s work as teacher and mentor. After “retirement,” he served as chair or member on the dissertation committees of at least twenty students in English and in Comparative Literature, while also supervising many dissertations at UCLA, Berkeley, and the University of Queensland.
Though he took emeritus status in 2002, Professor Miller did not slow down. He wrote another 15 books and sat on another 20 dissertation committees.
He also became increasingly fixated on what he called the ethics of reading, a final retort to those who accused deconstruction of apolitical nihilism. While it was impossible to find fixed meaning in a text, he believed, it was still the reader’s obligation to try.
“In the coming ages an informed citizenry in our democracy will be one that can read and think clearly about all the signs that at every moment bombard us through eye and ear,” he wrote. “Figuring out the best ways to ensure the existence of this citizenry will be a great responsibility, but also an exhilarating opportunity.”