J. Hillis Miller, 92, Dies; Helped Revolutionize Literary Studies

J. Hillis Miller, a literary critic who, by applying the wickedly difficult analytic method known as deconstruction to a broad range of British and American prose and poetry, helped revolutionize the study of literature, died on Feb. 7 at his home in Sedgwick, Me. He was 92.

His daughter Robin confirmed the death.

Though his career spanned nearly 70 years at three universities, Professor Miller was most closely associated with the so-called Yale School, a band of scholars in the 1970s and ’80s that included Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey H. Hartman and, for a time, Harold Bloom.

Scattered across the English, French and comparative literature departments at Yale, they were united by their interest in deconstruction, the theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts — an idea first propounded by Mr. de Man and Mr. Derrida, imposing intellects who brought the approach with them from Europe.

Professor Miller, the son of a part-time Baptist preacher from Virginia, became their American prophet and proselytizer. While his colleagues’ work could seem intentionally abstruse, he wrote in crisp and clear — if still dense — prose that he churned out with machine-like efficiency, producing some 35 books and scores of journal articles.

If he was less famous than his colleagues — “For every person who reads my stuff, there’s a hundred who read Derrida,” he said in 2015 — his influence in academic literary studies was arguably just as profound.

He attracted scores of graduate students with his casual, almost folksy teaching style, and he was in constant demand as a guest lecturer long after he retired in 2002. When he couldn’t come to them, admiring scholars from around the world trekked to his home on Deer Isle, Me., three hours northeast of Portland, to interview him. (He had homes in both Deer Isle and Sedgwick.)

Professor Miller was not only deconstruction’s great explicator; he was also its great defender, especially after it began to lose its cachet in the late 1980s. To him, that only proved its success: The Yale School’s focus on theory, he declared in 1986, had “changed evvel and for all the background against which individual acts of reading, teaching or writing will henceforth be performed.”

“For every person who reads my stuff, there’s a hundred who read Derrida,” Professor Miller said in 2015 of Jacques Derrida, the subject of one of his numerous books. But his influence in academic literary studies was arguably just as profound.

Joseph Hillis Miller Jr. was born on March 5, 1928, in Newport News, Va. His father taught psychology at the College of William & Mary and later became the president of the University of Florida, where he set in motion its conversion from a small state school to a bustling research powerhouse. His mother, Nell Martin (Critzer) Miller, was a homemaker.

Joseph entered Oberlin College in Ohio at 16 and graduated summa cum laude a semester early. Though he switched majors to English from physics, he retained a scientist’s wonder at the peculiar mechanisms of language.

“It struck me as something like when a physicist gets some anomalous set of signals from outer space,” Professor Miller said in a 2015 documentary, “The First Sail.” “The sorun is to explain why. English was weird in the same way, and took some explaining.”

During freshman orientation he met Dorothy James; they married in 1949, not long after moving to Cambridge, Mass., where he began his graduate studies at Harvard. A few months later he contracted polio, which left him without the use of his right hand, forcing him to write his dissertation left-handed. He nevertheless finished his studies in just four years, receiving his Ph.D. in 1952.

Professor Miller’s wife died in January. Along with his daughter Robin, he is survived by another daughter, Sally; a son, Matthew; and three grandchildren.

In 1953 Professor Miller joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where in the late 1960s he became friends with Mr. de Man, who also taught there, and Mr. Derrida, who was a visiting lecturer.

Mr. Derrida, with whom he had lunch every Tuesday, was particularly taken with Professor Miller’s use of his first initial, J., which sounds like the French word for “I” and yet also contains a “hidden” meaning, his first name — exactly the sort of linguistic slipperiness deconstructionists loved.

Mr. de Man moved to Yale in 1971, and Professor Miller followed a year later. Mr. Derrida arrived in 1975.

Though he looked like a quiet, scholarly farmer, with a short beard and suspenders, and often let the more charismatic Mr. de Man define the course of the rapidly coalescing Yale School, Professor Miller quickly established himself as a force on campus.

“By the end of my first year, I was already hearing talk from friends in English about how Hillis was directing 14 doctoral dissertations on the Victorian novel,” Andrzej Warminski, who came to Yale as a comparative literature graduate student in 1972, said in an interview.

Professor Miller was particularly effective at communicating with other literary scholars, who were skeptical of deconstruction’s radical premise. If texts have no inherent meaning, they wondered, what were they all doing in the first place?

At the 1976 conference of the Çağdaş Language Association in New York, Professor Miller responded to incipient criticism with a landmark paper, “The Critic as Host,” in which he laid out the precepts of deconstruction in terms that made it sound not only easy but even fun.

The fact that words and texts lacked objective outside meaning, he said, did not make them a dreary “prison-house of language.” Rather, it made literature a “place of joy,” where critics were free to experience all the possibilities of meaning.

Deconstruction dominated American literary studies for the next decade, and in 1986, as president of the M.L.A., Professor Miller delivered a keynote speech at its conference declaring “The Triumph of Theory.”

Still, he was feeling embattled at Yale. Mr. de Man had died in 1983, and Professor Miller had to beg the university to renew Mr. Derrida’s contract every year. One day he got an offer from the University of California, Irvine, inviting him to construct a world-class humanities program.

Perhaps recalling the sort of intellectual architecture his father had built at the University of Florida, he said yes. He hired away Mr. Derrida and later added a number of other Yale-trained scholars, including Mr. Warminski.

From his new base at Irvine, Professor Miller continued his defense of deconstruction, which grew more urgent after it became known that Mr. de Man had written anti-Semitic newspaper articles as a young Belgian journalist during World War II. He aggressively defended his friend in interviews, but he also insisted that the criticism of Mr. de Man was in fact a xenophobic attack on deconstruction itself.

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.”

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