James E. Miller, Jr., 90, Scholar of American Literature, 1920-2010

An obituary written by Kathleen Farley, wife of James E. Miller, Jr.

James E. Miller, Jr., the Helen A. Regenstein Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Chicago and renowned scholar of American literature, died of kidney failure and sepsis at his home in Hyde Park, Chicago, on September 9, 2010, his 90th birthday.  His wife Kathleen Farley notes that at the end of his long life, memories of which had been erased by Alzheimer’s, he would gaze at the long shelf of books bearing his name as author or editor and delight in repeating “I read books, I taught books, I wrote books.  I can’t live without writing a book.”

James E. Miller, Jr. was born on September 9, 1920, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma in 1942.  He took pride in his Oklahoma roots during the great depression, when he first discovered his love affair with books, and in his service as a cryptographer for the army during World War II.  After the war, newly married to Barbara Anderson (1921-81), he enrolled on the G.I. bill at the University of Chicago, receiving his master’s in 1947 and Ph.D. in American literature in 1949.  As a professor at the University of Nebraska from 1953 to 1961, he was appointed chair of the English Department at age 36, and according to colleague Robert Knoll’s widow Virginia Knoll, he “brought the department into modern times” and developed a systematic Ph.D. program.  Called back to the Chicago faculty in 1962, he served as chair of English from 1978 to 1983, and retired in 1990.

His first book, A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass, won the Walt Whitman Award of the Poetry Society of America in 1958.  Start with the Sun: Studies in the Whitman Tradition (1960), co-authored with Karl Shapiro and Bernice Slote, won the the Poetry Chap-Book Award of the Poetry Society of America.  As an Americanist, Miller ranged widely, publishing studies of Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald (buying his novels on the sidewalk for a dollar and writing the first doctoral dissertation on Fitzgerald), Henry James, and T. S. Eliot, including Quests Surd and Absurd: Essays in American Literature (1967); Word, Self, Reality: The Rhetoric of Imagination (1972); T. S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons (1977); The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman’s Legacy in the Personal Epic (1979); and T. S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet (2005).  Miller's early work on J. D. Salinger was among the first of its kind to be published, and he remained particularly attentive to living American writers.  The 1991 two-volume Heritage of American Literature, assisted by his second wife Kathleen Farley, is the culmination of his pioneering work in American letters.

His longtime work on a literature series for secondary school students with Scott Foresman touched generations of young readers.  Fellow editor Edmund Farrell, emeritus Professor of English Education at the University of Texas at Austin, relates that Miller “believed, as do I, that at the center of English is the subject of literature and that at its pedagogical center is the education of the imagination through the teaching of literature—centers that have been seemingly lost because of large large-scale testing programs that are leaving in their wake the desiccation of students' imaginations.”  This was a sentiment echoed by Miller in his presidential address at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in 1970:  “The individual English teacher must first realize that the stuff of survival—communication and imagination—are the subjects in his care.  If he does not accept responsibility for them, no one else will.”

Miller’s many professional activities, offices, and awards include a Fulbright fellowship in 1958-59, the presidency of the Midwest Modern Language Association (1961-62), a Guggenheim fellowship in 1969, and in 1975 the National Council of Teachers of English Distinguished Service Award.  The editor of College English from 1960 to 1966, Miller was an editorial adviser as well to the journals Prairie Schooner, American Literature, Walt Whitman Quarterly, Modern Philology, Critical Inquiry, Studies in American Fiction, and American Poetry.  A frequent ambassador of American letters abroad, Miller lectured and taught in Italy, Japan, Australia, France, Hungary, and China, where he delivered the inaugural address at the Whitman 2000 conference held in Beijing.

Many students recall his singing of union songs, dust bowl blues, and “Oklahoma,” his “robust laugh,” his home-made bread, and his Sunday-morning ritual, spatula in hand, making “crispy bacon” and huevos rancheros.  David Kuebrich recalls Professor Miller’s “kindness, and unfailing decency,” and refers to him as a person “absolutely without affectation” who “could make even a shy student … comfortable in his presence.”  Jan Keessen weeps, seeing that with Jim Miller’s death, an “era was over, taking with it the last and greatest of the gentlemanly scholars I knew there.”  Jane Novak Emery concludes, “The joy trumps the sorrow.  He was a great man.”

In addition to his wife Kathleen, he is survived by a son, James Miller, of New York City; a daughter, Charlotte Miller, of Chicago; a step-daughter, Laurie Black, also of Chicago; and grandchildren Alexander, Michael, and Benjamin Miller; Andrew, Rachel, and step-granddaughter Lisa Fogel.  The memorial service for James E. Miller, Jr. was held on his birthday, Friday, September 9, 2011, in Bond Chapel.