Mar 242011

Here’s a fascinating biographical interview with critic J. Hillis Miller that spans decades of the development of literary criticism in the U. S. Lovely to watch his exposure to new ideas, his growth as a thinker and reader. Especially interesting is the influence of Kenneth Burke, an American critic not often talked about these days, followed by Miller’s exposure to Derrida and the French.  Also not the now laughable academic career-making activity called “indexing.”


Miller: I learned a lot from myth criticism, especially the way little details in a Shakespeare play can link up to indicate an “underthought” of reference to some myth or other. It was something I had learned in a different way from Burke. Burke came to Harvard when I was a graduate student and gave a lecture about indexing. What he was talking about was how you read. I had never heard anybody talk about this. He said what you do is notice things that recur in the text, though perhaps in some unostentatious way. If something appears four or five times in the same text, you think it’s probably important. That leads you on a kind of hermeneutical circle: you ask questions, you come back to the text and get some answers, and you go around, and pretty soon you may have a reading.

An example of that would be the color red in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. You say, “There sure are a lot of red things in the novel.” You see the red inside Tess’s mouth at some point, and the red sign that she sees painted on a barn. It says, “Thou shalt not commit [adultery],” as she has done, or, strictly speaking, fornication. Then you say, “Hmm, what do you do with all these red things?” That leads you back to the text.

via ns 71-72 (Winter/Spring 2009) // the minnesota review.

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