Literary and Critical Theory J. Hillis-Miller
Éamonn Dunne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0026


J. Hillis Miller (b. 15 March 1928) is described by Julian Wolfreys as the most significant North American literary critic of the 20th century. He is currently UCI Distinguished Research Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine, where he has been since 1986. He is past president of the Modern Languages Association and the recipient of its lifetime achievement award in 2005. He has taught mainly at Johns Hopkins University, Yale, and UCI Irvine, and has also been a distinguished visiting professor at a host of international universities in Europe and China. His commitment to philosophy and literature, to questions concerning what constitutes “good reading,” responsible teaching, and the politics of interpretation is second to none. Not only a leading explicator of the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and the difficult rhetorical writings of Paul de Man (all of whom were close friends), Miller is also considered by most scholars in the field to be the most innovative and original voice in literary criticism in the early 21st century. Trained as a scholar of Victorian and Modernist literature, his interests have far exceeded these early preoccupations. He is known mostly as a commentator and proponent of the theories of deconstruction from his associations with the so-called Yale School of literary critics (including Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man), though, as he has consistently said over the years, his abiding commitment is to what happens in the act of reading literary and philosophical texts, to the event of reading that complicates any theory or methodology we bring to our reading practices. Increasingly, he has referred to this practice as “rhetorical reading.” Readers new to his work will find that Miller never presupposes prior knowledge in his audience; rather, a repeated technique is to introduce his reader to a topic by explaining what has interested him about it before considering, as far as possible, the corpus of thinking surrounding that topic. This is why Miller’s writings are appealing to the broadest possible range of researchers, from undergraduate to advanced levels, and an indication that his work is premised on “accounting,” as he puts it, for the unparalleled “strangeness” of literary works. It is also why he is often the first port of call for humanities students wishing to engage seriously in literary theory and philosophy.

General Overviews

Though serious analyses of Miller’s works have been appearing from about the mid-1960s, these have been mainly in the form of book chapters and journal essays. Miller and Asensi 1999 is the first book-length study of Miller’s work—though “book length” is perhaps not quite the right term. The work puts two writers together on opposing pages, so that Miller writes half of the book and Asensi the other. Asensi is particularly good at dispelling the myth of Miller’s turn from New Criticism to Deconstruction as a complete shift in thinking. The book is an excellent introduction but may be a little advanced for beginners. The best starting point for a study of Miller’s work is assuredly Wolfreys 2005. Though much has been said since then, this work comprises over twenty extracts from Miller’s oeuvre as well as critical responses from the most outstanding scholars of Miller’s work. The concluding interview “Why Literature?” offers fantastic insights into Miller’s thinking, as does Wolfreys’ exceptionally cogent and broad ranging introduction. Kujundzic 2005 is a phenomenal festschrift and contains superb critical responses and personal reminiscences of Miller as a teacher, colleague, and friend. Jacques Derrida’s contribution (a reading of Miller and Gerard Manley Hopkins) is profoundly moving and a must-read for serious scholars in this area. Dunne 2010 is the first monograph dedicated to Miller’s work and offers a solid critical overview as well as chapters specifically devoted to rereading Miller alongside Henry James, W. B. Yeats, Thomas de Quincey, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and Heinrich von Kleist. The book also contains an important interview. Dunne 2013 is a more playful introduction to the craft of Millerian reading and offers an alphabetical introduction, taking critical terminology used by Miller to create new readings of specific literary and philosophical works. Highlights of the book include an introduction by Miller on recent interests and a fun afterward by Julian Wolfreys—a great starting point for readers new to Miller and who might be interested in narrative theory. Kujundzic 2015 provides the script from the first documentary film about Miller, The First Sail: J. Hillis Miller, as well as responses to the film from leading critics in Miller studies. Miller’s response to the project also appears as an afterward, and an interview with the director gives a wonderfully personalized insight into the subject of the film.

  • Dunne, Éamonn. J. Hillis Miller and the Possibilities of Reading: Literature after Deconstruction. New York: Continuum, 2010.

    A scholarly survey of Miller’s readings with emphasis on several key figures recurring in Miller’s work. Argues that in order to understand Miller’s work you must first read the primary texts he discusses very closely. Particularly strong on readings of Henry James and Heinrich von Kleist. Also contains an important interview with Miller.

  • Dunne, Éamonn. Reading Theory Now: An ABC of Reading with J. Hillis Miller. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    Contains an annotated bibliography of Miller’s books from 1958 to 2009. The book aims to take Miller’s terminology and interests and expands them into new readings of short passages from literature and philosophy: topics include “Beginnings,” “Decisions,” “Joy,” “Promises,” “Writing,” etc. Also contains a foreword by Miller and a playful afterward by Julian Wolfreys.

  • Kujundzic, Dragan. Provocations to Reading: J. Hillis Miller and the Democracy to Come. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.

    Combines a stunning cast of literature and philosophy professors writing about Miller’s work. Derrida’s essay is a passionate personal account of his friendship and admiration for Miller over more than thirty years and a testament to the uniqueness of Miller’s critical voice and exceptional erudition.

  • Kujundzic, Dragan, ed. The First Sail: A Film Book. London: Open Humanities, 2015.

    Contains the transcript of the film of the same name as well as essays by Henry Sussman, Sarah Dillon, Julian Wolfreys, Nicholas Royle, Michael O’Rourke, Éamonn Dunne, and Charlie Gere. Sarah Dillon’s essay on the rhythms of thinking is a highlight, as is Miller’s response and the director’s.

  • Miller, J. Hillis, and Manuel Asensi. J. Hillis Miller; or, Boustrophedonic Reading. Translated by Mabel Richart. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

    Offers superb readings of literary and philosophical works and is particularly excellent on Miller’s influences and the genesis of his thinking. Not especially for novices in the field. Asensi is an excellent critic of Miller’s work and is intimate with the entire corpus. Miller’s book Black Holes faces this text on alternate pages. Two books in one.

  • Wolfreys, Julian, ed. The J. Hillis Miller Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

    A comprehensive introduction and overview of Miller’s works up to the early 2000s, alongside a host of fantastic response essays by some of Miller’s most important and imaginative contemporaries. A superb starting point for scholars interested in the vast range of Miller’s interests, from Victorian literature, through modernism, pedagogy, ethics, and theories and practices. Contains an excellent interview in which Miller expounds beautifully on the question “why literature?”

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