Hillis Miller

I just learned that Hillis Miller has died from Covid-19, at upwards of 90 years of age. He taught practically everybody in one way or another. And among his many life-changing deeds (life-changing for me anyway), he kept me in graduate school.

I was one of a too-big litter of young deconstructors in the Comparative Literature department at Yale in 1982. I had done all right, I think, in my first year, though I never heard much from faculty one way or the other. In winter of that first year I learned I had a fellowship to study in Taiwan. I told the dean, who promptly urged the department to terminate me on the grounds that “Chinese is not a Comp Lit language.” Hillis was Director of Graduate Studies and walked with me over to the dean’s office. I remember the red and blue oriental rug and Hillis’s folksy, joshing way with the dean: “It’s true, we don’t know what will come of this, but let’s give him a chance; he may never come back, but at least he’ll have tried something other people aren’t doing.” He succeeded, at least conditionally. That dean stepped down while I was away and no one ever contested my right to come back and finish my degree.

Hillis plucked me out of the discard pile. I will always be grateful. He was also one of the most graceful, attentive, constructive people who ever attended an academic conference. He wielded power, in the sense that scholars have power to make decisions about others’ careers, but wisely and gently.