Miller, Mary Britton
MILLER, Mary Britton
Also wrote under: Isabel Bolton
Daughter of Charles Phillip and Grace Rumrill Miller
The tragic events of Mary Britton Miller's childhood, which haunted her throughout her long life, are depicted in two books. In the Days of Thy Youth (1943), a fictionalized autobiography, and Under Gemini (1966), a memoir, describe the sudden deaths of Miller's parents, within an hour of each other, when Miller and her twin sister, Grace, were four. Moved with two brothers and a sister to their grandmother's Springfield, Massachusetts house, and from thence to other relatives, the twins thought, acted, and reacted as one person.
The two books end with another tragedy—the death, by drowning, of twin sister Grace at age fourteen. Of the aborted twinship experience, Miller said "Those early years with her are my treasury … of swift and accurate response to human behavior, of a queer sense of seeing into and through human beings who accompany me through life."
Miller attended boarding school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and subsequently traveled and did volunteer social work in Greenwich Village. The poetry Miller wrote in her free time resulted in her first publications. It was only after her sixtieth birthday that Miller turned to the novel form, dictating (because of eye pain from low-grade arthritis) five books between ages sixty-three and eighty-seven.
Some of Miller's poetry is written for a young audience, and is sensitive, quiet, and nature-loving. Sensitive in a different way is The Crucifixions (1944), which includes three Easter poems full of the imagery of guns, armaments, and tanks—the new Golgotha—and a resultant prayer for peace.
Adopting the name Isabel Bolton for her change from poetry to fiction, Miller followed her autobiographical In the Days of Thy Youth with the novel Do I Wake or Sleep (1946). Set in spring-saturated New York City in 1939, and told through the intense consciousness of a young Millicent Munroe, the book skillfully compares midwest, New York City, and European sensitivities, moving around the character of a woman whose retarded child is trapped in Nazi Austria. The Christmas Tree (1949), published first in part in The New Yorker, compares the inescapably self-destructive lives of New Yorkers of three generations with the world going to smash in 1945.
The special insight into aging and age that Miller was able to incorporate into her novels is strongly moving in Many Mansions (1952), whose protagonist is the eighty-four-year-old New Yorker, Miss Sylvester. On the day that Truman gave approval for development of the H-bomb, she is reviewing a manuscript she has written revealing a long-held secret love affair and child given up for adoption in her youth. The book gives what must be an intensely realistic picture of a day in the life of an elderly, creative, dying person. Memories of the 19th century and the two world wars of the 20th century merge and conflict, while physical difficulties and the present day interrupt the mind's sorting.
The Whirligig of Time (1971), Miller's last novel, depicts even more skillfully that combination of memory and desire that her elderly characters exude. Before the scheduled reunion of "Old David Hare" and "Old Blanche Willoughby" after over fifty years of separation, each thinks backward in time to childhood. Histories of mistaken marriages, desertion, deception, affairs, and passions come filtered through the years of their aging.
Miller's slim volumes of fiction deserve appreciative readers and scholars. In a 1971 interview, at age eighty-eight, Miller described her admiration for Virginia Woolf, Flannery O'Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates. "I care a good deal for style." "When in doubt, delete." I "fear that too many books try to say too much"—these statements by Miller could be her literary epitaph. Diana Trilling in 1966 described Miller's talent as "modest" and "deferential," hard to place in U.S. literary history. Perhaps that means, simply, that the literary history needs rewriting to encompass Miller.
Menagerie (1928). Songs of Infancy, and Other Poems (1928). Without Sanctuary (1932). Intrepid Bird (1934). Give a Guess (1957). All Aboard (1958). A Handful of Flowers (1959). Jungle Journey (1959). Listen—the Birds (1961).
American Novelists of Today. CA. TCAS.
NYHTB (27 March 1949). NYT (4 April 1975). NYTBR (20 Oct. 1966). PW (5 July 1971).
—CAROLYN WEDIN SYLVANDER