Essay Miller

This article is about the American professor and literary critic. For the American professor, psychologist and president of the University of Florida, see J. Hillis Miller Sr.

Joseph Hillis Miller Jr. (born March 5, 1928)[1] is an American literary critic who has been heavily influenced by—and who has heavily influenced—deconstruction.

Early life[edit]

Hillis Miller was born in Newport News, Virginia. He is the son of J. Hillis Miller Sr., a Baptist minister,[2] university professor and administrator who served as the president of the University of Florida. Miller graduated from Oberlin College (B.A. summa cum laude, 1948) and Harvard University (M.A. 1949, Ph.D. 1952). Miller is married and has three children.


Miller has been an important humanities and literature scholar specializing in Victorian and Modernist literature, with a keen interest in the ethics of reading and reading as a cultural act. From 1952 to 1972, Miller taught at Johns Hopkins University. During this time, Miller was heavily influenced by fellow Johns Hopkins professor and Belgian literary critic Georges Poulet and the Geneva School of literary criticism, which Miller characterized as "the consciousness of the consciousness of another, the transposition of the mental universe of an author into the interior space of the critic's mind."[3]

In 1972, he joined the faculty at Yale University where he taught for fourteen years. At Yale, he worked alongside prominent literary critics Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, where they were collectively known as the Yale School of deconstruction, in contention with prominent Yale influence theorist Harold Bloom. As a prominent American deconstructionist, Miller defines the movement as searching for "the thread in the text in question which will unravel it all,"[4] and cites that there are multiple layers to any text, both its clear surface and its deep countervailing subtext:

On the one hand, the "obvious and univocal reading" always contains the "deconstructive reading" as a parasite encrypted within itself as part of itself. ON the other hand, the "deconstructive" reading can by no means free itself from the metaphysical reading it means to contest.[5]

In 1986, Miller left Yale to work at the University of California Irvine, where he was later followed by his Yale colleague Jacques Derrida.[6] During the same year he served as President of Modern Language Association, and was honored by the MLA with a lifetime achievement award in 2005.[7] Both at Yale and UC Irvine, Miller mentored an entire generation of American literary critics including noted queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.[8]

Currently, he is Distinguished Research Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California Irvine.[9]

The Critic as Host[edit]

Miller's "The Critic as Host" could be viewed as a reply to M.H. Abrams, who presented a paper, "The Deconstructive Angel," at a session of the Modern Language Association in December 1976, criticizing deconstruction and the methods of Miller. Miller presented his paper just after Abrams's presentation at the same session.[10]

In his essay "The Deconstructive Angel," Abrams argued that there is a fixed univocal meaning for a text and if we use deconstructive strategies History will become impossibility. Miller replied that univocal and determinate meaning is impossibility and history is also impossibility. Every text is a vocalization of a vocalization.[original research?]

Miller asks a vital question at the beginning of his essay: when a text contains a citation from another text, is it like a parasite in the main text or is it the main text that surrounds and strangles the citation? Many people tend to see the deconstructionist reading as a parasite on its host, the univocal reading. Miller argues that deconstructionist reading is an essential and thoroughly naturalized ingredient in every reading, such that we cannot identify its presence.[original research?]

The word 'parasite' evokes the image of an ivy tree, the deconstructive reading that feeds on a mighty masculine oak, the univocal reading, and finally destroys the host. Miller rejects this view and calls this image inappropriate. Deconstructive reading is an essential and naturalized ingredient of every reading that we cannot identify its presence. He undertakes a brilliant etymological investigation of the word 'parasite' to prove his critics wrong.[original research?]

The word 'parasite' contains within itself its opposite. The prefix 'para' in the word parasite has many contradictory meanings. It simultaneously signifies proximity and distance. The word 'parasite' originated etymologically from the Greek 'parasitos'. The root means 'beside the grain'. 'Para' means beside and 'sitos' means grain or food. Originally 'parasite' was something positive. It simply meant someone who shares food with you, a fellow guest.[original research?]

The word 'host' has a more complex derivation. It meant a guest and a stranger, a friend with whom you have a reciprocal duty of hospitality, and a stranger and an enemy, and of course the holy Host. Miller shows that each word has a reciprocal, antithetical meaning built in, that these words are all intertwined in their etymology.[original research?]

The antithetical nature of the words 'host' and 'guest' shows the great complexity and equivocal richness of the apparently obvious and univocal language. The complexity and equivocal richness resides in the fact that language is basically figurative and metaphorical and hence it cannot represent reality directly and immediately. Deconstruction is an investigation of what is implied by this inherence of figure, concept and narrative in one another. Deconstruction is, therefore, a rhetorical discipline.[original research?]

There is a common view that a poem has a true original univocal reading and the secondary or the deconstructive reading is always parasitical on the first one. Miller, however, claims that there is no difference between both these readings. In his conception there is the poem and its various readings, all of which are equally valid or non-valid. The poem is the food and the two readings, both univocal and equivocal, are fellow guests near the food. Thus we get a triangular relation between the poem and its two readings, or the relation could be like a chain without a beginning or an end.[original research?]

Miller argues that an obvious univocal reading in the conventional sense is a myth. There is only deconstructive reading and it generates new meanings. The poem invites endless sequence of commentaries, which never arrives at a ‘correct’ or final reading and meaning. Harold Bloom has formed a concept of the anxiety of influence to clarify the indebtedness of poets of a generation to the older generations. No poem can stand on its own, but always in relation to another.[original research?]


  • (1958) Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels
  • (1963) The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers
  • (1965) Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers
  • (1968) The Form of Victorian Fiction: Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Meredith, and Hardy
  • (1970) Thomas Hardy, Distance and Desire
  • (1971) Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank
  • (1982) Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels
  • (1985) The Linguistic Moment: from Wordsworth to Stevens
  • (1985) The Lesson of Paul de Man
  • (1987) The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James, and Benjamin
  • (1990) Versions of Pygmalion
  • (1990) Victorian Subjects
  • (1990) Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on Twentieth Century Literature
  • (1991) Theory Now and Then
  • (1991) Hawthorne & History: Defacing It
  • (1992) Ariadne's Thread: Story Lines
  • (1992) Illustration
  • (1995) Topographies
  • (1998) Reading Narrative
  • (1999) Black Holes
  • (2001) Others
  • (2001) Speech Acts in Literature
  • (2002) On Literature
  • (2005) The J. Hillis Miller Reader
  • (2005) Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James
  • (2009) The Medium is the Maker: Browning, Freud, Derrida, and the New Telepathic Ecotechnologies
  • (2009) For Derrida
  • (2011) The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz
  • (2012) Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede and Middlemarch Revisited
  • (2014) Communities in Fiction
  • (2015) An Innocent Abroad: Lectures in China

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert Magliola. Appendix ii, in Derrida on the Mend. W. Lafayette: Purdue Univ. Press, 1983; 1984; rpt. 2000. Magliola, pp. 176–187, demonstrates deconstructive literary criticism as it was practiced in the U.S.A. circa 1970s-1980s, but also argues that J. Hillis Miller seems not to exploit the full implications of Derridean deconstruction (see in particular pp. 176–77 and 186-87).


  • Vincent B. Leitch, ed., “Georges Poulet.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, pp. 1318–1319.

External links[edit]

Archival collections[edit]


  1. ^"Miller, J. Hillis (Joseph Hillis), 1928–". Library of Congress. Retrieved 22 July 2014.  
  2. ^J. Hillis Miller Jr., On Literature (Routledge, 2002), p.142.
  3. ^Vincent B. Leitch, ed., (2001). The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism. "Georges Poulet." New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 1318–1319.
  4. ^Vincent B. Leitch (Ed.). (2001). The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism. "Cleanth Brooks" 1352.
  5. ^Synopsis of Miller's "The Critic as Host"
  6. ^Deconstruction, by Mitchell Stephens - CJR, Sept/Oct 91Archived 2006-10-03 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^Today@UCI: Press Releases:
  8. ^About J. Hillis MillerArchived 2006-09-07 at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^UCI E&CL Faculty Profile
  10. ^Leitch, Vincent B. (2014). Literary Criticism in the 21st Century: Theory Renaissance. London: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 15. ISBN 978-1472527707. Retrieved 27 January 2018. 

Gabriel Byrne was trying to get into character. That of Tom Reagan, the hard-bitten, punch bag anti-hero of Miller's Crossing. So, he turned to his director, Joel Coen, with an enquiry: "What's the significance of the hat? I need to know." Joel turned to Ethan Coen, never more than a beat away, "Ethan, Gabe wants to know what the significance of the hat is." Ethan paused for a moment, "Yeah, it is significant". Then he walked off.

Miller's Crossing is about a man chasing a hat, a significant hat. It is unswervingly the finest movie in the considerable Coen canon. Drenched in film lore (as always), designed with a sumptuous detail that extends the mood beyond reality into a meta-"movie" reality, it is shot with masterful elegance (by Barry Sonnenfeld) and performed, unusually for the brothers' work, with as much subtlety as caricature. And it has this script sent from God. A hyper-charged, multi-layered, whirligig of gangster lingo and idiom hatched from the noir pages of Dashiell Hammett by way of Raymond Chandler. This is as much a film about language and communication—with a pastiche phraseology unique and self-contained — as Tommy guns and gambling. The Coens are lovingly deconstructing another genre with a detail and care that constantly reveals new insights on every visit.

Their theme is friendship (brotherhood, almost) and a quest for integrity in a world morally devoid. And there you have your hat, although the Coens will have none of it — "I don't think you need to read the movie that way to make sense of it". As far as Tom's concerned it's everything he is, it's his identity and our laconic hero is the only moral order we can cling to in this sea of corruption, betrayal and bone-headed plays.

With due homage to the labyrinthine pulp that inspired them, the Coen boys tie the plot in a ridiculously complex knot of distinctive yet archetypal characters, nefarious double deals and constant betrayal. Second tier gangland boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wants to rub out Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro) because he suspects he's revealing his fixed fights (he is). City overlord Leo (Finney) won't bend because he's sweet on Bernie's sister Verna (Harden). Leo's confidant and adviser Tom can smell trouble, he knows Caspar's got big ambitions and that Verna's playing Leo for a sap (anyway he's been bedding her on the quiet). So Tom defects to Caspar (but not really) while Caspar's right-hand man Eddie Dane (J. E. Freeman) remains suspicious (rightly). Dane, though, is sweet on Mink (Steve Buscemi) who's sweet with Bernie and any second now the whole damned city (unnamed, but filmed in New Orleans) is going to explode into a gang war with Tom at the centre of the maelstrom.

Complex as it is, events are driven by the verbal pyrotechnics (Tom and Verna's delicious sparring is comparable to anything betwixt Bogart and Bacall:
Verna: "Shouldn't you be doing your job?"
Tom: "Intimidating helpless women is my job."
Verna: "Then go find one, and intimidate her."

There are also thrilling set-pieces — the sequence where Leo turns the tables on potential assassins, filling one with enough Tommy gun lead to make him dance like a crazed marrionette while Danny Boy lilts from his gramophone, is simply genius. The violence,
frequent as it is, gyrates from the cartoonish (Tom's incessant stream of bruiseless beatings) to sharp bursts of bloody brutality (Dane has his face smashed in with a coal shovel). The film never commits itself to realism, existing in a heightened milieu ruled only by the laws of movies.

The casting is inch perfect. Finney makes the charismatic Leo his own, despite having stepped in at the last possible moment when original choice Sterling Hayden died. Harden, atypically attractive with voluminously mad Dorothy Parker hair, is all twitchy sexuality and pout. While the regular Coen troupe weave their rabbit-mouthed magic (Turturro, Buscemi, Polito — look out, too, for cameos from Sam Raimi and Frances McDormand) as a bunch of slickly attired, self-serving double-crossers. Tom is the converse, his motives are loyalty and friendship — even trust on some deeply buried level, only his method is betrayal. A sack of bitter wisecracks, fuelled by sour bourbon and ever-present smokes, he plays all ends against the middle with rubs of Bogart in his sharp tongue and street loner persona. It's Byrne's finest moment, although he struggled with it — those damned elusive brothers. Tom paradoxically gives the movie heart. Fluttering evasively around the edges of Miller's Crossing is a twisted form of devotion, even love.

By the end, bodies have been strewn across town with Shakespearian abandon: Caspar is dead, Bernie is dead, Mink is dead, Eddie Dane is dead and Leo has won and got the girl and his city back. It was a smart play, there's no escaping that. As for Tom? Tom winds up with nothing. Nothing except his hat. And that is significant.

Who knew crime could be so funny? Gabriel Byrne has never bettered his performance.

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