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Millhauser, Steven (Lewis)

MILLHAUSER, Steven (Lewis)

Nationality: American. Born: New York, 3 August 1943. Education: Columbia College, New York, 1961-65, B.A., Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1968-1971 and 1976-77. Family: Married Cathy Allis in 1984, one son and one daughter. Career: Visiting associate professor of English, Williams College, 1986-88; associate professor of English, Skidmore College, 1988-1992. Since 1992 professor of English, Skidmore College. Awards: Prix Medicis Étranger, 1975; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1987, for literature; Lannan literary award, 1994, for fiction; Pulitzer prize for fiction, 1997. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer. NewYork, Knopf, 1972.

Portrait of a Romantic. New York, Knopf, 1977.

From the Realm of Morpheus. New York, Morrow, 1986.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. New York, Crown, 1996.

Enchanted Night: A Novella. New York, Crown, 1999.

Short Stories

In the Penny Arcade. New York, Knopf, 1986.

Little Kingdoms: Three Novellas. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1993.

The Barnum Museum: Stories. Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.

The Knife Thrower and Other Stories. New York, Crown Publishers, 1998.

* * *

Steven Millhauser is an explorer of the uneasy relationship between imagination and experience, portraying their various effects and conflicts on the personalities of his characters. He is also a stylistic virtuoso, adept at creating precise and allusive prose that both mirrors and perfects literary tradition. All of his protagonists are disappointed dreamers who long to see their fantasies realized, though each meets with varying degrees of success.

In his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, Millhauser creates the mock biography of an eleven-year-old novelist, ostensibly written by a twelve-year-old scholar, that is both a shrewd literary parody and a convincing portrayal of the emotional vicissitudes of childhood. With discernible influences from Nabokov's Pale Fire and Mann's Doctor Faustus, this novel explores the murky border between history and fiction, suggesting a kind of culpability in the biographer's efforts to shape the life of his subject into a narrative whole, at one point even having the biographer Jeffrey Cartwright assert that his chosen mission is even greater than Mullhouse's vocation as an artist, "for the artist creates the work of art, but the biographer, so to speak, creates the artist." It is an erudite arrogance made all the more absurd for being the musings of a proud little boy. Paradoxically, this assertion also emphasizes the very artifice of history. By condensing all the conventions of literary biography into a single though prodigious lifetime of a dozen years, Millhauser manages to combine a meticulous observation of the minutiae of childhood with a critical satire in an alchemical mix that many critics consider to be his finest novel.

In Portrait of a Romantic, Millhauser again creates a novel that is both a pitch-perfect critique, this time of romanticism, as well as a harrowingly vivid account of the turmoils of adolescence. Arthur Grumm, the narrator, tells the story of his formative years, when he was an American Werther, a being of passionate urges, emotional idealism, and painful sensitivity. Grumm and his friends divert themselves decadently as each struggles to reconcile their yearnings with their circumstances. Like Goethe's character, Grumm contemplates suicide as an escape from the dreariness of existence. The book climaxes with a particularly fateful game of Russian roulette between these two boys, but not before examining, in seventy-five chapters of highly-charged language that evokes comparisons to writers such as Goethe and Poe, the emotional upheavals of adolescence in a way that equates that nether region between childhood and adulthood with an artistic temperament characterized by excessive passions and egoism.

After the publication of these two novels, critics focused on Millhauser's fictional evocations of children, noting that his main characters are both recognizable children as well as extremely precocious geniuses. But Millhauser depicts genius as the ability to sustain obsessionsand children, with their wild emotions coupled to a naive worldview, are naturally obsessive. And, while it is true that Millhauser depicts growing up as the loss of some essential power of imagination that is the province of childhood, this is part and parcel of his more basic exploration of the conflict between imagination and experience. Millhauser's later work would be concerned less with children than with the dreams and disappointments of adults.

Millhauser's third novel, From the Realm of Morpheus, is a monumental travelogue of the imagination, its plot being more impressionistically thematic than dramatic, lending the book both the vividness and insubstantiality of a dream. But no mere dream is as encyclopedic as Millhauser's novel, which both borrows and steals from dozens of works of fabulist literature, from Ovid to Kafka, from Spenser's The Faerie Queene to Homer's Odyssey. Carl Hausman, a young man who could be Arthur Grumm's grown and disaffected avatar, literally falls down a hole to enter a dreamland ruled by Morpheus, the god of sleep, who takes Hausman on a comprehensive tour of his kingdom, where such fantastical things as libraries of unwritten books, halls of talking mirrors, and living paintings abound. By far the longest of Millhauser's novels, From the Realm of Morpheus is also his most complex, being more an aria of fantasies than a dramatically structured tale that conforms to the Aristotelian unities. This may explain why the book has such an arduous publishing history as well as, at best, an ambiguous critical reputation.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer is Millhauser's marriage of a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale to his oft-adopted motif and modus operandi of depicting and delineating the imagination as an endless labyrinth that, at its farthest remove from the workaday world, approaches the rarefied and static nature of death itself. On the other hand, this novel breaks Millhauser's pattern of constructing a narrative in which a first-person narrator tells of his Boswell-to-Johnson relationship with a generally more brilliant central character. Instead, Millhauser conforms to the American tradition of third-person narrations of the rise and fall of men attempting to achieve that golden fleece of American mythology: the American Dream. Echoing the novels of Theodore Dreiser, though without Dreiser's pessimistic sense of naturalistic fate, Millhauser depicts the life of the eponymous character, at the same time evoking a turn-of the-century portrait of New York City that is both realistic and romanticized. Dressler rises from cigar-shop success to hotel-chain magnate, building ever more grandiose creations that culminate in the Grand Cosmo, a hotel that is nothing less than the universe contained in a single building. The failure of this final construct is a telling indictment of the often corrosive relationship between idealism and pragmatism, between dream and reality. It is Dressler's failure to reconcile his dreams with a clear-eyed view of the real world that causes him to fail; his fantasies have been allowed to run amok in the Grand Cosmo, but even this most substantial of dreams is too ethereal to survive in the bustling world of the city. Because it eschews the linguistic pyrotechnics of Edwin Mullhouse while telling a recognizably unified and dramatic story, Martin Dressler has become Millhauser's most commercially successful novel.

The novella, Enchanted Night, which was published as a book in 1999, is the story of a single night in a small town in the state of Connecticut, a night of the full moon in which the dreams of the town's inhabitants begin to merge with their real lives. In short episodes, sometimes only a sentence in length, Millhauser weaves several strands of story into a unified text that explores the relationship between dreaming and living, questioning whether one type of experience is more authentic than the other. A mannequin comes to life for a date with a lonely mechanic, while the moon itself descends in bodily form to seduce a young man. The Pied Piper arrives to summon the children of the town with his flute, while a gang of young female prowlers breaks into the house of a spinster. However, as dawn breaks, each of these encounters ends and reality is restored. But the townspeople remember, if unconsciously, what has happened. Indeed, as this night ends and as the various dreams depicted begin to fade, their effects on the townspeople are no less profound than actual memory.

If From the Realm of Morpheus is Millhauser's creativity at its grandest realization, then Enchanted Night is his imaginative vision at its most focused, while his Pulitzer prize-winning Martin Dressler is Millhauser's most realistic creation. Edwin Mullhouse, his auspicious debut, is also his most insightful exploration of character, but all of these novels are instances of Millhauser's aesthetic at work, best summarized at the beginning of chapter nine in Portrait of a Romantic:

A work of fiction is a radical act of the imagination whose sole purpose is to supplant the world. In order to achieve this purpose, a work of fiction is willing to use all the means at its disposal, including the very world it is plotting to annihilate. Art imitates Nature as Judas imitates Christ.

Since the publication of Edwin Mullhouse, Millhauser has created such radical works of fiction, whose very authenticity lies in their ability to supplant reality with an equal, even insidious vivacity. Critics may fault Millhauser's fiction for being fantastically unrealistic, but Millhauser would himself argue that such unreality is precisely his point.

J.J. Wylie

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