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Cover of Miller's Errand into the Wilderness

Perry G. Miller (February 25, 1905, Chicago USA - December 9, 1963) was an American intellectual historian and Harvard University professor. He was an authority on American Puritanism. Alfred Kazin referred to him as "the master of American intellectual history".

Biography

Miller earned his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from the University of Chicago and taught at Harvard beginning in 1931. In 1942 Miller resigned his post at Harvard to join the U.S. Army; he was stationed in Great Britain for the duration of the war, where he worked for the Office of Strategic Services. Miller may have been instrumental in creating the Psychological Warfare Branch of the O.S.S.; certainly he worked for the PWB for the duration of the war. Precisely what he did and how he spent his time has never been disclosed; it may have been regarded in the postwar world by government officials as a matter of national security). After 1945 Miller returned to teaching at Harvard. According to legend, Miller returned to the campus housing where he had lived as a young man and used to get roaring drunk on Bloody Marys while working over the galley proofs for The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in 19th Century Manhattan (released by Johns Hopkins). Perhaps because of the nature and difficulty of his work, it is not easy to assess his influence; but Miller's work has probably been felt on several generations of historians and intellectuals, from Puritan studies to discussions of narrative theory. The essays in Errand into the Wilderness and Nature's Nation are probably his most accessible writings; they offer piercing insights into the nature of American civilization and political institutions. Miller also wrote book reviews and articles in The Nation and American Scholar. In his long-awaited biography of Jonathan Edwards, published in 1949, Miller argues that Edwards was actually an artist working in the only medium available to him in the 18th century American frontier, namely: that of religion and theology. His posthumously published The Life of the Mind in America, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, was only the first installment of a projected ten-volume series. Miller spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey on a Guggenheim Fellowship and also taught in Japan for a year. His death was a tragic loss to America's intellectual landscape. Felix Frankfurter wrote a moving obituary for Miller which was published in The New York Herald Tribune after his death; evidently, this Supreme Court Justice read Miller's work closely. A brief taste of Miller's almost poetic use of prose: "For Christ nets were lowered into the sea and commerce conducted."

Legacy

  • Margaret Atwood dedicated her famous book "The Handmaid's Tale" to Perry Miller. He had been a mentor to her at Harvard and parallels can be drawn between her story and the Puritan movement on which he was an expert.
  • When Marshall McLuhan was teaching at Saint Louis University, he called Miller's The New England Mind (1939) to the attention of Walter J. Ong, a Jesuit seminarian whose master's thesis McLuhan supervised. In an appendix to Miller (1939), Miller wrote that "[t]here is a crying need for a full study of [Peter] Ramus and his influence" (p. 493). A decade later, Ong took up the challenge, writing a doctoral dissertation on Peter Ramus and Ramism at Harvard under Miller's supervision. In 1958, the Harvard University Press published that dissertation in two volumes titled Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (reissued in 2004 by the University of Chicago Press, with a new foreword by Adrian Johns), and Ramus and Talon Inventory. In the foreword to Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, Ong says, "In the conception and preparation of the present work, my greatest debt of gratitude is to Professor Perry Miller of Harvard University, whose work on Ramism provided the immediate stimulus for the present study and who could always be relied on for enthusiasm and encouragement when the mass of material in which the study is necessarily involved grew occasionally oppressing". Ong dedicates his 1967 collection of essays entitled In the Human Grain "To the memory of Perry Miller, Cor ad cor loquitur."

Books

  • 1933. Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650
  • 1939. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century
  • 1949. Jonathan Edwards
  • 1953. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province
  • 1953. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition
  • 1956. Errand into the Wilderness
  • 1956. The American Puritans (editor)
  • 1957. The American Transcendentalists, their Prose and Poetry
  • 1957. The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville and the New York Literary Scene
  • 1958. Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau’s Hitherto “Lost Journal”
  • 1961. The Legal Mind in America: from Independence to the Civil War
  • 1965. Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War
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