Millhauser, Steven 1943–
Millhauser, Steven 1943–
(Steven Lewis Millhauser)
PERSONAL: Born August 3, 1943, in New York, NY; married Cathy Allis, 1984; children: one son, one daughter. Education: Columbia College, B.A., 1965; graduate study at Brown University, 1968–71, 1976–77.
ADDRESSES: Home—235 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, NY 12866. Office—Skidmore College, English Department, Palamountain Hall 307, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer and educator. Williams College, visiting associate professor of English, 1986–88; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, associate professor, 1988–92, professor of English, 1992–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Prix Médicis Étranger (France), 1975, for Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright; American Academy/Institute of Arts and Letters award for literature, 1987; World Fantasy award, 1990; Lannan literary award for fiction, 1994; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1997, for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer.
Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.
Portrait of a Romantic, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
From the Realm of Morpheus, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1986.
Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 1996.
In the Penny Arcade (stories and novella), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
The Barnum Museum (stories), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Little Kingdoms (three novellas), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1993.
The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 1998.
Enchanted Night: A Novella, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 1999.
The King in the Tree: Three Novellas, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including New Yorker, Tin House, Grand Street, Harper's, and Antaeus. Contributor of story "A Visit" to CD The New Yorker out Loud, 1998.
ADAPTATIONS: Martin Dressler was released in an audio version by Guidall, 1997; Enchanted Night was released in audio versions by Dove Audio, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Pulitzer prize-winner Steven Millhauser, hailed by many critics as one of America's finest novelists, made his first entry onto the literary scene with Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–54, by Jeffrey Cartwright. It is the fictitious biography of an eleven-year-old novelist as penned by the novelist's twelve-year-old companion. The young novelist, Edwin Mullhouse, completed only one work, the masterpiece Cartoons, prior to his untimely death at age eleven. His biographer records Mullhouse's interest in baseball cards and novelty-shop gifts while unwittingly revealing his own obsessions with Mullhouse and Cartoons. As the biographer's self-created rivalry with the late Mullhouse develops, Edwin Mullhouse evolves into both a parody of literary biographies and a sardonic portrait of the artist.
Published in 1972, Edwin Mullhouse was acclaimed by many reviewers. William Hjortsberg, writing in New York Times Book Review, called Millhauser's work "a rare and carefully evoked novel,… [that] displays an enviable amount of craft, the harsh discipline that carves through the scar tissue of personality painfully developed during the process known as 'growing up.'" J.D. O'Hara, reviewing the work for Washington Post Book World, noted that Millhauser's "characters, like J.D. Salinger's in one way … are absurdly precocious children, but their story is for adults." A New Republic reviewer was equally impressed with Millhauser's work, calling it "a mature, skillful, intelligent and often very funny novel."
Millhauser continues his depiction of childhood in his second novel, Portrait of a Romantic. Arthur Grumm, the twenty-nine-year-old protagonist, gives an account of his life between the ages of twelve and fifteen. He sees himself as a sickly, bored only child who says that "by some accident the children in my neighborhood were older than I and so excluded me from their dusty games." Grumm reveals himself as a vaguely suicidal adolescent divided by the polarized beliefs of his two friends, William Mainwaring, an avowed realist whom Grumm refers to as "my double," and Philip School-craft, an equally vehement romantic referred to by Grumm as "my triple." Schoolcraft introduces Grumm to the romantic life, typified by decay, contemplation, and despair—they pass time pondering Poe and playing Russian roulette. Grumm later forms suicide pacts with the pathetic Eleanor Schumann and eventually with the disillusioned Mainwaring. The bizarre events caused by Grumm's suicide pacts provide an offbeat context for his own internal conflict between realism and romanticism and his weighing of the harsh repercussions inherent in submitting to either attitude.
According to John Calvin Batchelor of Village Voice, Millhauser, in his attempts to capture completely every detail, writes "with sometimes suffocating amount of sights and sound." Times Literary Supplement critic William Boyd noted that too much effort is lavished on "pages of relentlessly detailed description." Nevertheless, Portrait of a Romantic stands as a "remarkable book" by a very talented writer, according to George Stade in New York Times Book Review. Stade added: "Once you reread the book the particulars begin to look different. The foreshadowings become luminous with afterglow. What first seemed merely realistic … becomes symbolic. What seemed mere fantasy … becomes the workings of an iron psychological necessity." William Kennedy, who reviewed the novel for Washington Post Book World, also responded with respect and praise, declaring that Millhauser's "achievement is of a high order."
Carl Hausman, the young narrator of Millhauser's 1986 novel From the Realm of Morpheus, is watching a base-ball game. He chases a foul ball and finds an opening to the underworld, which he immediately investigates, and readers are plunged, Alice in Wonderland-style, into the world of Morpheus, the God of Sleep. In what John Crowley in New York Times Book Review dubbed "a book, wholly odd yet purposefully unoriginal," Millhauser takes readers on a literary tour that parodies a variety of genres and where characters from history, literature, and legend converse and philosophize in a series of disconnected episodes. While Rob Latham, in the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, contended that this experiment in mock epic writing falls short of its intended goal, Washington Post Book World contributor Michael Dirda praised From the Realms of Morpheus as "beautifully composed" and "utterly entrancing."
Millhauser's Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer tells the story of a quintessential Gilded-Age American entrepreneur, his dreams, and his disappointments. The title character works his way up from his father's cigar shop through a dreamy series of promotions, schemes, and machinations to become the owner and proprietor of a Manhattan hotel, The Grand Cosmo, that is "a leap beyond the hotel" in its fantastical atmosphere and consumerist excess. Janet Burroway, writing for New York Times Book Review, described the novel as "a fable and phantasmagoria of the sources of our century," calling Martin "not a parody but a paradigm of the bootstrap capitalist." Critics cited the novel for its imaginative and piercing glimpse into the American psyche and the American dream; Martin Dressler explores not only Dressler's business success, but also his personal failures and ultimate unhappiness. A Booklist reviewer observed that Millhauser "brings descriptive delicacy to this chronicle of Martin's 'falling upwards' and the forces behind the fall." A Kirkus Reviews critic described the novel as "a chronicle of obsession, self-indulgence, and, in a curious way, moral growth, expertly poised between realistic narrative and allegorical fable."
In addition to longer works, Millhauser has also authored many short stories and novellas, most of which have been included in published collections. A writer for Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 1997 commented that the author "writes of the world of the imagination. The subject of his stories is frequently the artist and the dreamer, the illusionist who creates words to satisfy the needs of others for fantasy. Millhauser's artistic motivation is summarized in a line of his short story, 'Eisenheim the Illusionist' from the collection The Barnum Museum: 'Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams.'"
In his first collection of short stories, In the Penny Arcade, Millhauser continues his pursuit of "fiction as a mysterious, magical, enlightening experience" according to Robert Dunn in New York Times Book Review. The book is divided into three sections, the first containing the novella August Eschenburg, a long story about a German boy who is possessed by the desire to create mechanical devices that approximate life. Creating lifelike models for store windows and for an automaton theater, he dreams about infusing these automatons with life. But when a rival exploits this craft for pornographic purposes, August returns to his home and dreams his dreams in solitude.
The second section of In the Penny Arcade, comprised of three stories about real-life characters, contrasts to the artificial-life stories of sections one and three. These stories are more delicate; they are subtle, revealing the "fragility of moods in which nothing much actually happens," according to Al J. Sperone in Village Voice Literary Supplement. Similarly Irving Malin, in Review of Contemporary Fiction contended, "These stories vary in length and setting and time, [and] they must be read as variations on a theme—the 'perfection' of art…. They surprise us because they are less interested in plot, character, and philosophy than in magic, dream, and metaphor." Among the three stories in the final section is the title story, in which a young boy returns to an arcade he has idealized in his mind, seeing it in all its seediness. Robert Dunn noted in New York Times Book Review that Millhauser "creates for us this splendid arcade. And he asks us also to be vigilant as we venture with him into the common corners of our ragged world, where the marvelous glows and the true meanings breathe life."
The Barnum Museum collects stories that seek a reconciliation between the worlds of illusion and reality. In "The Sepia Postcard," the narrator buys an old post card and finds that as he examines it more closely the figures on it come alive. In "Rain," a man walks out of a theater and into a storm. As he walks on, he washes away as if he were a watercolor painting. Taken as a whole, this collection addresses the broader issue of imagination, according to Jay Cantor in a review for New York Times Book Review. The critic wrote that Millhauser "imagines the imagination as a junk shop with a warren of rooms, one chamber linked to another without any reason except the bewildering reason of the heart." This junk shop is the Barnum Museum, which is "named for the patron saint of charming bunco," P.T. Barnum. Many of the ten stories in the collection engage the reader in what Catherine Maclay in World and I dubbed "a playful examination of the imaginary and the real … [and the attempt to find] a reconciliation of these opposites." In blurring the lines between these two, Millhauser's postmodern stories help us "find a way to maintain a bridge" between them, according to Maclay.
Other short-story collections include The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, which New York Times Book Review contributor Patrick McGrath noted showcases Millhauser's "rich, sly sense of humor" and a characteristic "tone of whimsy" that "conceals disturbing subversive energies." In the dozen stories included in this collection the author proves himself to be "American literature's mordantly funny and unfailingly elegant bard of the uncanny," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who added that the collection addresses two themes: When does the "pursuit of transcendent pleasure degrade rather than exalt?" and can the pursuit of pleasure be sated "without our becoming jaded or corrupt?" In the tales "Flying Carpets" and "Clair de Lune" he addresses these questions in stories imbued with a fairy tale quality that recalls childhood. "The Sisterhood of Night" and "Balloon Flight, 1879," about a hot-air balloonist during the Franco-Prussian war, in contrast, "suggest new avenues of thought in Millhauser's fiction," according to McGrath. In the title story, according to Washington Post Book World reviewer A.S. Byatt, the author "steps beyond the bounds of the comfortable" in describing a virtuoso knife thrower in whose public performances are couched private fantasies. Praising "Paradise Park," Byatt added that the strength of this story lies in "Millhauser's ability to weave detail into detail, the lovingly real and possible into the extravagantly impossible." Commenting on the collection in Boston Globe, Margot Livesey concluded that Millhauser's characters are intent upon escape. "Sometimes they go too far …," the critic added, "but in their struggles between the real and surreal, the effable and the ineffable, art and life, these characters and their creator illuminate our struggles to live our daily lives and still keep something larger in mind."
Millhauser's first collection of novellas, Little Kingdoms, includes The Little World of J. Franklin Payne, The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon, and Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash 1810–1846. Each of these works continues their author's exploration of the theme of the relationship between the life of the world and the life of imagination, according to Michael Dirda in Washington Post Book World. Dirda added that these three stories as grouped "subtly question each other about imagination and its power." In the first, J. Franklin Payne, a newspaper cartoonist, becomes obsessed with the making of an animated cartoon film. In doing so, Nicholas Delbanco, writing for Chicago Tribune, noted that he "invents his own reality—not so much in compensation for artistic disappointment as in an effort to improve upon the diurnal world. What seems vivid to him is his own imagination; reality looks dull." In his fixation on the cartoons he is creating, we are reminded of August Eschenburg's fixation on mechanical figures.
The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon plays with the conventions of the fairy tale genre: a late-medieval time setting, castles, dungeons, evil, dwarves, jealous princes, and virtuous maidens. Frederick Tuten noted in New York Times Book Review that "embedded in this story is the narrator's meditation on the art of his time, paintings so lifelike as to cause a dog to lick the portrait of his master." Millhauser's blurring of the lines between reality and imagination is a continuation of the same techniques in his Barnum Museum stories. Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash 1810–1846 is perhaps the most clever. In a writing style Daniel Green described in Georgia Review as "typically energetic," the story is presented as an extended commentary on an exhibition of paintings by the fictional painter Edmund Moorash. Through a close reading of the explanations of the paintings, however, readers see the world of the painter complete with intimations of incest, devil worship, romance, and betrayal. There are four characters in the tale: Moorash, his sister Elizabeth, his friend William Pinney, and William's sister, Sophia. However, as Dirda pointed out, "passion's cross-currents disturb friendship's pallid surface." The result is that these four end up as figures as tragic as the subjects of the paintings at the exhibition. This novella is a work of art about art works and the theme of imagination and reality and the lines between them. Elizabeth keeps a diary in which she writes, "Edmund wants to dissolve forms and reconstruct them so as to release their energy. Art as alchemy." Delbanco noted in Chicago Tribune that this is "the credo of the whole" story. But it very well fits as the credo of all Millhauser's works.
Donna Seaman, in her review of Millhauser's 1999 work Enchanted Night: A Novella for Booklist, noted that the author "has been drifting into fantasy … and now he weaves pure magic in this dreamy tale of one fateful summer night." Enchanted Night, which is comprised of seventy-four short prose sections with chapters sometimes only one page long, conjures up toys and a mannequin coming to life, an unsuccessful author and his unsuccessful relationship with the mother of a childhood friend, teenage girls breaking into a house leaving cryptic notes, a lonely drunk stumbling home, and a girl waiting for a lover who may be real or may be fantasy.
The three-novella collection published as The King in the Tree focuses on the consequences of forbidden amours. In An Adventure of Don Juan, based on Gabriel Tellez's sixteenth-century writings about the legendary Spanish lover, the thirty-year-old Don Juan finds his plans to seduce two sisters frustrated when he inadvertently falls in love with one of them. According to World and I contributor Edward Hower, Millhauser's protagonist "experiences the sort of conflict shared by many of this author's characters: how to reconcile the sometimes seductive demands of the outer world with the longings that spring from the inner recesses of the soul." The title story also focuses on obsession, retelling the medieval legend of Tristan and Ysolt while also adding psychological depth. As Michael Dirda noted in his Washington Post Book World review, in Millhauser's version "all loyalties, strongly felt and believed in—loyalty to one's sovereign, to the marriage vows, to honor, friendship and ones' very self—are ripped apart by the remorseless claims of passionate love." The short novella Revenge takes the form of a monologue as a widow gives a tour of her home—and her own life—to a prospective home buyer who, the reader soon discovers, is actually a former rival for the narrator's late husband's affections.
Praising The King in the Tree as "rich in verbal dexterity, ambitious romantic imagery, and fascinating insights into the darker regions of the human heart," Hower commented that Millhauser's construction of a "world of artifice" serves to distill from his characters lives "the most intense emotional expression and meaning." In Los Angeles Times Jeff Turrentine cited Mill-hauser's "Gothicism" as well as his love for the nineteenth century that permeates the collection. The King in the Tree "is a moving, melancholy book about the unlovely toll exacted by love on those it has abandoned," added Turrentine. A Kirkus Reviews writer maintained that "some of the best writing of Millhauser's increasingly brilliant career appears in this collection."
Millhauser's fiction remains widely heralded for its perceptive exploration of the problems and pleasures of youth, and the author continues to be lauded for both his stylistic virtuosity and his capacity to evoke the undercurrents of ordinary life. As Dirda commented in Washington Post Book World: "So enchanting is his prose, so delicate his touch, that one surrenders to his plangent word-music as one does to the wistful piano pieces of Ravel and Chopin. Reading Millhauser, there are times when you simply lay the book aside and say to yourself, 'I had not known that sentences could be so simple and so beautiful.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 21, 1982, Volume 54, 1989, Volume 109, 1999.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, April 1, 1996, review of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer; September 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Enchanted Night: A Novella, p. 233.
Boston Globe, May 17, 1998, Margot Livesey, review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, p. D1; March 9, 2003, David Rollow, review of The King in the Tree.
Chicago Tribune, October 3, 1993, Nicholas Delbanco, review of Little Kingdoms, p. 5.
Entertainment Weekly, May 17, 1996, p. 55; April 10, 1998, review of Little Kingdoms, p. 61.
Georgia Review, winter, 1995, Daniel Green, review of Little Kingdoms, pp. 960-967.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1996, review of Martin Dressler; December 15, 2002, review of The King in the Tree.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 31, 1999, review of Enchanted Night, p. 29; March 16, 2003, Jeff Turrentine, review of The King in the Tree.
Nation, September 17, 1977, pp. 250-252; May 6, 1996, p. 68; May 25, 1998, Benjamin Kunkel, review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, p. 33.
New Republic, September 16, 1972, review of Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright.
New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1972, p. 2; October 2, 1977, pp. 13, 30; January 19, 1986, p. 9; October 12, 1986, Robert Dunn, review of In the Penny Arcade, p. 9; June 24, 1990, Jay Cantor, review of The Barnum Museum, p. 16; October 3, 1993, p. 9, p. 11; May 12, 1996, p. 8; May 10, 1998, Patrick McGrath, review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, p. 11; November 14, 1999, Tobin Harshaw, review of Enchanted Night, p. 109; March 9, 2003, Laura Miller, review of The King in the Tree, p. 1.
Publishers Weekly, August 8, 1986; March 23, 1998, review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, p. 78; January 20, 2003, review of The King in the Tree, p. 55.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1986, Irving Malin, review of In the Penny Arcade, pp. 146-147; summer, 2000, Brian Evenson, review of Enchanted Night, p. 180.
Saturday Review, September 30, 1972; October 1, 1977, p. 28.
Spectator, March 7, 1998, review of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, p. 32.
Time, June 10, 1996, p. 67.
Times Literary Supplement, July 28, 1978, William Boyd, review of Portrait of a Romantic; April 3, 1998, review of Martin Dressler, p. 23.
Village Voice, March 6, 1978, John Calvin Batchelor, review of Portrait of a Romantic, pp. 70-73.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, February, 1986, Al J. Sperone, review of In the Penny Arcade, pp. 3-4.
Wall Street Journal, April 24, 1996, p. A12.
Washington Post Book World, September 24, 1972, p. 8; October 9, 1977, p. E5; September 21, 1986, pp. 1, 14; September 5, 1993, p. 5, p. 14; April 28, 1996, p. 3; June 14, 1998, A.S. Byatt, review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, pp. 1, 10; February 9, 2003, Michael Dirda, review of The King in the Tree, p. 1.
World and I, December, 1990, review of The Barnum Museum, pp. 406-410; October 1998, review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, p. 280; June, 2003, Edward Hower, review of The King in the Tree, p. 230.
World Literature Today, winter, 1999, review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, p. 148.