Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Nancy K. Miller took place on February 10, 2007 in Miller’s office at the CUNY Graduate Center. Transcribed by David Cerniglia.
Jeffrey Williams: To start, I want to ask about the trajectory of feminist criticism in the US. It seems that you were at key places at key times—you studied French at Columbia in the early ’70s when structuralism was in its heyday, but you were part of a cohort that developed if not invented feminist literary criticism. How did you come to do the work you did?
Nancy K. Miller: I went to graduate school for a PhD in 1969. It was really the beginning of the widespread development of feminism in the United States, and I started a women’s group with my friend Hester Eisenstein in January 1971. By then I was getting ready to write my dissertation, and there had already been the March for Equality. Sexual Politics was published in August 1970, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine came out in New York Magazine in ’72. So there was this sense that something was happening. It wasn’t particularly happening at Columbia, but it was happening in New York, and I felt that I was part of something. I certainly did not take any classes that had anything to do with feminism or women writers.
In any event, there was almost nothing recognizable as feminist criticism. When I told my advisor that I was very excited about Sexual Politics because it was a model for reading men’s writing, which is what I was going to be doing in the dissertation, he said—I will never forget—”Don’t be a second-rate Kate Millett. She wasn’t first-rate to begin with.” She was a Columbia PhD and had gotten her PhD, I think, in ’69 or ’70, so that certainly set a tone.
JW: Who was your advisor?
NM: That was actually my second reader, Otis Fellows, who dominated eighteenth-century studies. People felt free to say things like that then. My actual thesis director was Michael Riffaterre, as you may know, and I think he was amused. The only reason that he tolerated my working on the question of the representation of women was that I was a structuralist, which is this sort of bizarre fact of my history as a feminist. I had been trained as a structuralist. That’s what we did there: semiotics and the structural analysis of narrative, narrative theory and the Russian Formalists. While I was still at Columbia, in part through the Maison Française, Lacan came to speak, and Derrida came, and poststructuralism started to emerge. But the line with Riffaterre was structuralism, and his particular take on it, structural stylistics. Because I was considered at the time to be a “theory person,” the fact that I was also interested in heroines was tolerated. But it was just barely tolerated, and it was seen as something that would pass, an emotional reaction possibly.
JW: In the beginning of The Heroine’s Text, you distinguish between “euphoric” as opposed to “dysphoric” narratives, euphoric being when the heroines are integrated into society and dysphoric ones when they die, which seems to happen to a lot of women characters in novels. I can see a connection with structuralism, in staking out the generative opposition.
NM: Okay, but here’s the thing: between the time I wrote the dissertation, which I defended in December ’73, and the time I finally transformed it into a book, important feminist literary criticism had been published. That was partly why I shifted from an organization that had categories of structural analysis to more thematic categories. By then I had precursors—there was Literary Women by Ellen Moers in 1976 and Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own in 1977. I had already finished my book when Madwoman in the Attic came out in ’79—I was kind of glad because, well, it would have just changed everything.
JW: So, in other words, it was part of what was going on, and you were part of a group that was discovering this.
NM: I taught my first course on French women writers in 1977. The Committee on Instruction had to approve all the courses, so when I proposed the seminar, I probably benefited from the fact that I was the only person in the department asking to do this. It was like, “How threatening could it be? We’ll allow her to do this one course.” When we met for the first time, we felt like terrorists. When we shut the door, and said we were there to read women writers, the students and I were filled with a sense that we were doing something truly transgressive. I don’t know whether every movement has this feeling, whether the first time people taught African-American or queer literature it was the same thing, but we thought we were being very daring.
JW: I’m curious about the milieu at Columbia. Lionel Trilling had been there for a long time, although he died in ’73 or ’74, if I recall correctly.
Miller: But I was in French, and that makes a big difference. The French department was relatively large, and we thought that people in English were in a backwater, because everything was coming out of France at the time, and we weren’t waiting for the translation! There was a lag of at least two or three years. The department also had the “troika”: Todorov, Kristeva and the third—other critics like Jauss, Eco and others coming from Europe on a regular basis.
JW: So the birth of theory wasn’t just at the famous conference at Johns Hopkins?
NM: No, no. We felt that we were at the forefront of everything important intellectually. And theory was considered something completely positive—there were just different branches, almost immediately. Literary theory, semiotics, psychoanalytic theory, narrative theory and of course Riffaterre’s structural stylistics. We thought of the English department as being hopelessly old-fashioned. Now things are quite different in the sense that English departments have become more experimental and theory driven. I think French departments still are intellectually interesting, but they’re very small, and they’re no longer at the forefront.
JW: A lot of people who became well-known feminist critics went through Columbia, but I guess through English, like Lillian Robinson, Sandra Gilbert….
NM: We were completely separate from English. I don’t think I knew anybody in that department. Because I was a bit older as a graduate student, I was friends with the assistant professors who were my age and one of my greatest friendships, which started in 1970, was with Naomi Schor, who had come from Yale. And Susan Suleiman from Harvard. Once I was teaching, there were students who worked in part with me, Alice Jardine, Peggy Waller. Later, Kate Jensen, the first student whose dissertation I directed. So ultimately there was a cohort of young assistant professors and some graduate students.
But what also has to be said is that the department was totally controlled by Riffaterre—and of course I feel even freer to say this because he’s dead, but I would have said it anyway. It was a personal tyranny; it was like living under a dictator. Riffaterre had one of those personalities where everything revolved around pleasing him.
Not that there wasn’t resistance. There was Leon Roudiez, who was one of Kristeva’s main translators for many years. He was more involved with contemporary French writers. Then Sylvère Lotringer was hired to teach theory of the novel. He really brought everything that was new and post-structuralist into the department. He was hated by Riffaterre, who hadn’t realized what kind of theoretician Sylvère would turn out to be. As students we were sort of watching the parents squabble, and it was pretty violent.
JW: Then you finished in ’74?
NM: I finished in ’74 and became an assistant professor in the French department at Columbia. I benefited from favoritism because I was Riffaterre’s student and the department decided to hire me as an assistant professor, which they don’t do very much. I was there until I went to Barnard in ’81.
JW: So you were working on your book?
NM: Well, I was writing articles. I was publishing out of my dissertation. I was continuing to work in eighteenth century, and it was all going toward the book, which took me a long time to get together. The turning point, probably in my life and career, was when I met Carolyn Heilbrun in 1976. With Mellon money, Columbia created a Society of Fellows. The idea was that assistant professors should get to meet with full professors and team-teach. I met Carolyn, but we didn’t teach together until 1978, which was actually outside the terms of the fellowship. We taught a course together that we called “The Heroine’s Text,” because by then I knew that was going to be the title of my book. That changed everything for me because, for the first time, I discovered what it would be to have a female mentor.
JW: You hadn’t had any female professors?
NM: Not at Columbia. There was one woman in the department and actually in my field, but she was always in solidarity with the men and very fearful and didn’t stand up for any of us, ever. It was a male world, totally. Carolyn’s book, When Men Were the Only Models We Had, has a lot to say about that. So we taught together and then—how can I put this?—my tenure was finessed. I never came up for tenure at Columbia. There were three senior people in eighteenth century, so there was no way they were going to tenure somebody junior in the period. But at the very same time—this was a lucky, lucky break—Barnard had decided that they wanted to appoint a Women’s Studies director and that that person would be tenured. A deal was struck because Barnard doesn’t control its tenure process; Columbia has to pass every appointment. It’s a colonial situation. In any event, I guess it was made clear—that was Riffaterre’s last gesture to me—that if Barnard hired me, Columbia would tenure me. So I became Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, a title that had never existed, and I went across the street to run the Women’s Studies program at Barnard in the fall of 1981.
JW: If I put your career in narrative terms—I started out doing narrative theory too—I could say that the first predicate was working on the eighteenth-century novel, English as well as French, but the move to Women’s Studies marked a new predicate. Did your project change?
NM: Well, it was always hard for me to teach graduate courses in eighteenth century because, as I said, there were three senior people, so it was clear that I had to find something else to do. I also had to figure out something to teach at Barnard because I hadn’t been appointed to their French department. I had to create some kind of other expertise for myself. I started working on the question of women’s writing, and by then that was a major subject in feminism—there had been Madwomanand A Literature of Their Own. Notice that in The Heroine’s Text there are no women writers—even that late. It was only in the epilogue to that book, after a reader’s report pointed out their absence, that I thought, “Wait, there are no women writers!” It was a complete discovery. Not only had I not noticed, but I hadn’t realized what would change if you started noticing.
So I taught a course at Barnard that I loved, which I then passed on to Susan Fraiman, called “The Female Protagonist.” You can see how that grew out of “The Heroine’s Text” seminar. I started teaching English novels like Mill on the Floss and To the Lighthouse and for my research looking at French women writers from the seventeenth century to twentieth centuries. That became my next book, Subject to Change, which was my attempt to theorize the question of women’s writing—did it have a specificity, and what could you say about it? I produced four or five case studies of women writers, still in the French tradition. Colette was the last writer I dealt with.
JW: French Dressing continued that?
NM: No, not exactly. French Dressing represents the waning of my engagement with the eighteenth century. I guess that collection marked the end of my original field. I no longer felt that I could seriously teach the period because I didn’t want to keep up with the scholarship. I still could get pleasure from reading the literature, but I just wasn’t interested in the debates any more. So that was a profound shift.
JW: So your work followed a certain itinerary of feminist criticism, beginning with the critique of the representation of women in male writers, to establishing a tradition of women’s writing and changing the canon, and then, through the ’80s, a concern with more theoretical questions.
NM: But in the ’80s I was still concerned with the canon, too. Joan DeJean and I co-edited an issue of Yale French Studies on the canon. We called it, “Displacements,” and we later published it as a book. It’s an anthology of feminist essays on the French canon. It was the last work I did that way.
I also edited Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman with Joan for the MLA translation series. The novel is one of the books I talk about in Subject to Change. I sometimes have nostalgia for my years in French because it’s a much smaller world. It always seemed that there was so much to do and so many discoveries to be made. French literature will always be my first love. But I don’t miss being in a French department.
JW: Your career might have been much different had you gotten tenure in the French department.
NM: Indeed. Afterwards, I was positioned in Women’s Studies, which was all-consuming. Developing the program was arduous because, even though Barnard was a women’s college, there were plenty of people, especially in English, who didn’t see the point of Women’s Studies and who were extremely hostile to the program’s existence—including the president, who didn’t really want to hire a permanent director. So it wasn’t at all a comfortable perch.
The most dramatic thing that happened when I was at Barnard, except for Columbia admitting women, was the sexuality conference in ’82. It was the first big thing on my watch, basically. There was an annual Scholar and Feminist Conference every spring at Barnard and that year the subject was sexuality. There was a gigantic planning committee and the group decided that it would create a diary of the process of working on the conference. We had people like Esther Newton and Faye Ginsburg and Kate Ellis and Ann Snitow and Ellen Willis and Judy Walkowitz—lots of very established feminists came together to create this conference that Carole Vance directed. Everything was highly self-conscious, including this decision to have a diary. The conference had been sponsored for many years by the Helena Rubinstein Foundation. What happened was that Women Against Pornography, WAP, got wind of the direction the conference was taking, and they started to picket outside the college. That got the public relations office really nervous. I had left town to attend a conference in Kentucky, and when I returned, I discovered that the diary had been confiscated by Barnard’s president (she currently is the president of the Museum of Natural History). She was a young lawyer, and she was the acting president, and it was her first year, so I guess she freaked out. Then, bizarrely, the administration reissued the diary. They didn’t actually censor the pictures, they just removed any indication that Barnard had sponsored the event.
This was the context in which Gayle Rubin, who was wearing a leather collar with metal studs, made the announcement that basically from here on the radical sexual liberation movement would be in charge of sexuality and feminists could have gender. All of this is recorded more fully in the anthology Pleasure and Danger that emerged from the conference. This was a very, very big turning point because it exposed a major split in feminism, with some people identified as “pro-sex feminists” and the anti-pornography people labeled “anti-sex.” And it was the beginning of the debates that went on through the’ 80s, about what was acceptable sex and so on.
JW: I can see how it was a key moment and a key place.
NM: It was definitely a major institutional moment, and then a couple years later the Poetics of Gender conference at Columbia was considered to be—nobody would believe it today—radical. And then the following year—just to see how quickly things change—at the Poetics of Anger, which I didn’t run, Eve Sedgwick read, “A Poem Is Being Written,” in which she talks about anal eroticism and so on. People were astonished, especially the men, who were sort of on the floor with embarrassment. But that was still an attempt to make feminism work in the institution by—I don’t know if we would have put it that way—beating them at their own game, but let’s just say that we were doing the work and wanted to be respected.
JW: It worked too, to an extent. In the preface to Poetics of Gender, Carolyn Heilbrun says something about the “Miracle on 116th Street,” and how you would have never believed from 1950 to 1985 that this change would have occurred, although she is ambivalent about it.
NM: Here’s the point she probably was making: we were writing and we were doing these conferences and we were changing paradigms, but it didn’t affect anything to do with hiring. I would say only now in the new millennium, as far as I know at Columbia, it’s the first time there are the kinds of appointments they wouldn’t make then. But in all those years there weren’t any women. Naomi Schor wasn’t tenured, Susan Suleiman wasn’t tenured, I wasn’t kept. That was the phrase—”kept,” whether you’d be kept or not. There’s a very long list. So even though the work was happening, it wasn’t going into the hiring and it wasn’t going into the structure of departments or any form of institutional power at all. So it was bitter—I’m sure that’s what you picked up.
JW: That is bitter, and it seems like there was a certain intransigence with hiring in new fields, but on the other hand, when it finally did happen, one criticism is that it was institutionalized and lost some of its charge.
NM: Yes and no. I don’t think that institutionalization was as detrimental to feminism as many people think. It was more that no sooner had academic feminism received some recognition inside the institution—the creation of women’s studies programs, and so on—that there was a kind of undermining of the ground of feminism from within. Actually, several things were happening at the same time. With the influence of poststructuralism, some feminists felt we shouldn’t accept the signifier “woman” because that was just playing the game of patriarchy—accepting that woman could be defined. That was one debate—in addition to the sex/gender divide emerging from the Barnard conference. I guess I just don’t see it that way—as a falling off. Feminism was never all that powerful to begin with.
JW: One thing that people might claim about why feminism ceded is that it spoke mostly for white women of a certain class.
NM: It’s easy to say and I’m not sure it’s entirely true—at least the consciousness about race (class, less I’d have to say) was in the forefront of our discussions. Hortense Spillers took on the question forcefully at the Barnard conference, in fact, and she wasn’t alone. This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrié Moraga, was published in 1981 and influenced the debate. Certainly, in Women’s Studies at Barnard, the question of black women writers was present almost from the start. The writer and critic Barbara Smith taught a course on black women writers and black feminism in the program throughout the ’80s.
From the beginning of the movement, there was always a challenge about who got to speak. You would go to any feminist conference, and after a panel invariably someone would rise from the audience and say, “All very well, but it doesn’t speak to my experience as a”—fill in the blank of who or what identity was being excluded. When I wrote Getting Personal, it was in part because I didn’t want to have to worry about who I was speaking for—or not. Ironically, someone reviewed the book and attacked me for being “insufficiently transnational.” I wasn’t trying to be transnational, but I just thought, yeah, feminism’s worst enemies are within. It’s what the Left always does to itself, spending all our time doing internal critique.
To go back to your question, I don’t think the worst thing was that feminism was institutionalized. To me, the worst has been the forgetting of feminism and the power of feminism as a form of theory or practice in the institution itself. I was on a panel here at the Graduate Center a few months ago. There was a discussion about paradigms for talking about African American literary history, debating whether we should read African American literature separately or in conversation with American literature, or try to determine the specificity of African American literature. People seemed to have had no clue that we had gone through those debates in literary feminism. The same thing could be said most of the time for queer theory. Eve Sedgwick is a notable exception to that rule.
But I believe that feminism is coming back, albeit transformed, of course. I was surprised and pleased to learn that students created an interdisciplinary Feminist Studies group, and they’ve been having conferences. Many women students are feminists and work on women writers, even though they now automatically include other kinds of theory—they’re doing trauma theory and postcolonial theory and race theory and so on.
JW: The late ’80s seem as if they were a pivotal time in criticism. Your work since then made a turn toward thinking about autobiography and, as you aptly call it, “personal criticism”—I say aptly because you don’t see it simply as a turn from theory to confession but as an inflection of criticism that might be influenced by theory.
NM: For me the turning point in the ’80s was my falling out with Riffaterre at the School for Criticism and Theory.
I did one exercise in personal criticism in 1978. It was a talk I gave at one of the early Barnard Scholar and Feminist conferences. We were asked to talk about “creating feminist work,” so I described the room I worked in, which was very important to me at the time. I loved doing it, but it never occurred to me that speaking personally was a mode. The essay I published in Signs in that period was an outtake from the dissertation. It was deliberately jargony, and many of us felt exhilarated, liberated by this new discourse. I know that when my mother proofread my dissertation, she said, “You know, many of these words are not in the dictionary,” and I was extremely pleased about that.
The piece that became the turning point for me wasn’t planned. I wrote “My Father’s Penis,” because I had to write it, and it emerged from what we used to call in feminism “lived experience.” It had to do with my father’s illness and my caretaking experiences with him when he had Parkinson’s, but the writing itself was generated by the coincidence of the upset I had around his physical and mental condition and my being attacked by Riffaterre at the School for Criticism and Theory. I say in the essay that I finally learned the difference between the penis and the phallus, and it was literally true in the sense that my father had lost the phallus but he certainly still had his penis. Riffaterre had the phallus, and he trashed my colloquium paper.
JW: When was that?
NM: ’88. The condition for the School, as you know, is that each seminar teacher has to circulate a new work for the colloquium. The assumption is that everybody has read your paper and the director says what he thinks, and then you’re supposed to respond. So there I am. I’m up on the stage at Dartmouth, in a big auditorium, and Riffaterre reads a five-page attack on “FC,” or feminist criticism, via my paper. The piece is the one in Getting Personal called “Dreaming, Dancing.” It’s not very much about me, but it was experimental. So Riffaterre reads his so-called response in which he says that feminist criticism “othered” him as a reader and said he wasn’t allowed to read books by women or some insane claim like that. It felt like it went on for an hour, but probably it lasted fifteen minutes. I’m sitting and looking at this audience of people, including Edward Said, Mary Ann Caws and my own seminar students, and he has just trashed my paper and trashed feminism, and I was stunned. Riffaterre invited me to the school, right? [He directed SCT for many years.] My head started to pound; I couldn’t believe it was happening.
Then Marianne Hirsch, who was also the moderator, read her response, which I confess I do not remember, since I was truly in shock, and asked, “Well, would you like to respond?” And I thought, “No!” There was no way words were going to come out of my mouth. I was mute. And I thought, “Why would I talk to somebody who just did this to me?” I knew the people in the audience were wondering, “Well, why doesn’t she just attack him back?” Afterwards, one woman said to me, “We were waiting for you to destroy him.” To me, it was like a primal moment. There was no response to such a betrayal. How many years was it by then? And I had been his favorite. Plus, I admit, he had been a fascinating person in his horribleness.
After that I wrote “My Father’s Penis.” Not just because of what happened, but clearly it was my way of working through that shock of being publicly humiliated. It was also the other side of what I was living with, in which my father, in my mind, was humiliated. So it was a kind of ending—I thought, “I am no longer afraid of these guys.” I could never take a man that seriously again just because he was a man.
JW: That freed you, then?
NM: Oh yes. It was an absolutely transformative moment. And then I wrote Getting Personal. Riffaterre was part one. Part two was that my father died the next year. It was right after his death that I finished the book on my first sabbatical in ’89-90. I had never had a sabbatical, and I went to Paris and I wrote. I had some of the pieces already and I put them together and I theorized, to the extent that I theorized, what was at stake.
There were two other elements in the fold. One was that it was ’89, the fall of the wall in Berlin. It was a feeling, especially in Europe, that the universe was changing. Then on the more intimate academic scene, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which Bill Germano [then editorial director of Routledge] had sent to me in Paris. It’s a good thing I’m not a talent scout because I thought, “Oh, this is so technical,” and I would never have imagined that the book was going to turn out to have the importance it did. But it was a new world in many ways in the ’90s.
JW: Did you walk away from academic criticism or the academic institution as you knew it?
NM: A bit. I didn’t have to leave Barnard, I had tenure, but I did jump at the offer to go to CUNY because I felt like I had been too long at Barnard and Columbia and I needed a change. Plus, I felt that at CUNY it was okay, even encouraged, to do experimental work.
But I don’t feel that I’m anti-academic at all. I’ve just finished an essay for PMLA about the field of autobiography studies and I’m still interested in publishing in academic journals, even though I do it in the way that I’ve become attached to, in this mixed form.
JW: I can see how that’s true. A book like Bequest and Betrayal, which I thought was going to be a straight memoir, is actually more of an academic book insofar as you read a number of autobiographies, even though you intersperse short personal sections in italics.
NM: Bequest and Betrayal is a hybrid. I wanted it to work both as an academic book and as a book that (I fantasized) would attract a general audience, but it didn’t happen, probably because there was still too much literary criticism. I would give the book to friends who weren’t academics and they’d say, “I have to confess, I only read the parts in italics.” I thought, “Oh god, I worked so hard to get the italic parts to work with the critical parts.” I guess it didn’t succeed. Everybody has one book that they’ve done that they feel never really caught on or was misunderstood, but it was their favorite. Bequest and Betrayal is my favorite book.
There are visible seams in my writing, as opposed to the kind of essays you might read in the New York Review of Books where the prose is seamless, where you don’t feel a mixed allegiance. I might want to adduce myself as an example, but there’s also an argument I want to make. When I accepted to write the essay for PMLA, Marianne Hirsch, who was then editor, threw down the gauntlet. “Write what you want,” she said, “but don’t make it personal.” I honestly wasn’t sure I could write an academic piece without putting myself into it at all. But I did. Of course, the essay is personal in the sense that it’s my take on things, but it’s not autobiographical.
JW: I like your phrase “mixed allegiance.” It seems like the shift to more personal modes is often cast as a kind of Saul-to-Paul conversion from theory to confession. Is it a rebellion against doing theory?
NM: It’s a different way of doing theory. I don’t know whether people consider that I’m doing theory in my current work, but I do have a view about some aspects of autobiography, mainly autobiography as a form of relation, including to the reader. Now I’m using another term, “the entangled self,” to make the point a bit more strongly. The earliest feminist reading of autobiography, Mary Mason’s “The Other Voice” in 1980, wanted to demonstrate that women’s autobiographical writing always required a significant other in order to put the self on stage, whether it was a husband or a child or another. When I started working on Bequest and Betrayal, I realized that many male authors also did that, and that maybe Mason had defined a feature of autobiography as a genre as opposed to limiting it to women’s autobiography. You write an autobiography as an attempt to disentangle yourself usually from your family, but the self is always bonded, and that bonding inheres in the genre.
JW: Do you think personal criticism is a good model for criticism?
NM: That’s hard to answer. That was one of the first questions I got when I was going around giving the first chapter of Getting Personal as a talk.
JW: Because the usual rap is that …
NM: You have to be privileged in order to do it.
JW: I taught some personal criticism in a seminar on current criticism and my students said, “But could we do this and get published?”
NM: I just taught a course called Experimental Selves. We started with Woolf and ended up with a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, and I gave students a chance to experiment however they wanted—if they wanted to write a critical paper, if they wanted to write a theoretical paper, if they wanted to write a personal paper. I said I didn’t mind what they did. Most of them chose to write what they hoped would be a publishable article because it’s what they need to do to get a job. I think if as a profession we allowed graduate students to experiment in their writing, that would be great; the reality is that we’re pushing them to be producers of the acceptable, publishable article.
Experimenting can improve academic writing, though. Experimenting forces you to see what you’re doing. When you return to look at some of your straight critical sentences, you can tell that they don’t fit in your mouth.
I think the first mixed-genre paper I gave in an academic setting was “Decades.” It was at a philosophy conference, if I remember correctly, and someone came up to me afterwards and said, “I really enjoyed your paper.” I thought, “What do you mean you really enjoyed my paper? This personal material is not to entertain you!” I was vexed. I was younger; now I’m glad if people enjoy the work.
JW: It seems to me that, since 2000, you’re writing more about your family history and also about aging. If I added another segment to narrate your career, would it be that?
NM: Yes. There is concern with aging in Bequest and Betrayal, and in But Not Enough About Me I talk about my own aging directly. If had to pick the critical book that has had the greatest impact on me in this phase it would be Camera Lucida. Barthes was younger than I am now when he wrote that book—he was just turning sixty. The book was generated by his mother’s death, and it’s a meditation about aging as well as about photography.
I’ve been doing research on my Eastern European ancestors, and only months ago I learned where my grandparents were born. I found myself thinking, “How can it be that hundreds of thousands of Jews do not even know the name of the town their grandparents came from?” I am interested in these questions of what and where we come from, which, it turns out, also becomes part of the conversation on immigration. It had never seemed to me, being the third generation, that this had any relevance to my narrative. Now I’m trying to get that earlier story. So the project is autobiographical, but it’s also historical, and it’s barely about me, except that my family provides the thread. I have some memory objects and some documents that I’m having translated from Yiddish, and I’m trying to reconstruct the process of Americanization that I realize now was very important to me when I was young, without my having a clue that it was.
JW: How would you answer the charge that personal criticism is self-indulgent rather than social or political?
NM: I can’t think of anything more self-indulgent than most high theory, which is written in a totally impersonal mode and means that the author expects the reader to work hard to understand it. Bad writing is self-indulgent. If I’m a bad writer, then that’s another matter. But I’ve found over and over again that when you write autobiographically it brings people to their stories. They use you as a jumping board to get to themselves. And as for the personal and the political . . . that comes with the territory.
You were asking me earlier about feminism. For a long time I’ve been aware of my story as being generational. I belonged to a certain cohort of people, more or less, of a certain age, who went through this movement together. I always felt, until we splintered so badly, when I was writing about feminist moments and feminist ideas that they were shared and sharable. And to a large extent they have been. The questions of genealogy and of immigration that I’m obsessed with now only make sense to me if I can tell a collective story, because nobody cares about my grandparents. I barely care about them. It’s more a matter of trying to understand what was the stake of Americanization for this particular group of immigrants, and how it played itself out.
JW: I wanted to ask you about the book that you’re finishing [Breathless: An American Girl in Paris—to be published in fall, 2013, by Seal Press]. There is a gap on your vita, from an academic standpoint, from ’61 to ’68 or so.
NM: The book is set in Paris, where I lived from 1961, when I graduated from Barnard, until ’67, when I came to New York. For the next couple of years I was in a kind of drugged fog. It was such a shock to return. I desperately wanted to be an expatriate. I had gone to Paris to get a Master’s degree, and I was teaching English, but what I wanted was to become someone else. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I was inspired by Jean Seberg in Breathless.
JW: I doubt you were the only one. Did you wear a lot of turtlenecks?
NM: Turtlenecks were earlier, but it was the whole French thing. It seemed as though everything exciting was happening in Paris, and to me, being a New York girl meant being locked in by my family, controlled by my parents, being expected to be nice, being expected to be a high school French teacher since I had been a French major in college and having nothing on the horizon except for the possibility of a—I don’t think we ever used the word “profession”—means of earning money, if my husband-to-be fell on hard times. It was called the “fallback” model. So I went to Paris. I was twenty and a total innocent. In fact, one of my first experiences abroad, even before Paris, when I had gone to England to study Shakespeare in 1959, was with an actual con man who had a prison record. I tell that story in But Not Enough About Me. I was enamored of Europe; I thought it was glamorous and sexy and intellectual and above all non-bourgeois.
JW: What did you do when you were in Paris?
NM: I was always teaching English because that was the easiest way for me to earn money, and then I just had a lot of adventures.
JW: This is the point when your students will be on the edges of their seats.
NM: It was the beginning of sexual liberation, and I was away from home. I was already attracted to libertine literature and French movies. I didn’t know what to do, but having sex, I figured, was a way to have agency, as we say now. Before feminism, if you wanted to not be who you were destined to be, what was there to do? I went to college with a friend who became a doctor, but most Barnard girls just got married and had kids. If you didn’t want to do that, what else was there? That’s what Europe was—the alternative. But it turned out to require a man, since I was still enough of a 50s person to think I needed a partner in crime. Ultimately I married another American expatriate and thought I would stay. Forever.
Then everything fell apart. I often regret that I didn’t hang on long enough for May ’68 because French society completely changed at that point. But it was very hard to be a foreigner. It was almost impossible to get work. I ran out of gigs, and when the marriage collapsed, I came back and was at a bit of a loss, trying to figure out what to do next. In the end, I went to graduate school, so I was sort of saved by structuralism and saved by feminism! To come full circle, when I went to Columbia I was given two tools for survival. Structuralism was a tool to analyze this world that I had lived in with such confusion. It made sense of everything; it was the total theory. And the other was not from school, of course, but from the world—feminism. I was in my late twenties, the ’70s were dawning, and it was a kind of re-beginning.
Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her most recent books are What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past as well as the co-edited Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory and Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis. Her new memoir, Breathless: An American Girl in Paris is forthcoming from Seal, Fall 2013. Her website can be found here: www.nancykmiller.com.