Hugh Miller Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hugh Miller 1802-1856

Scottish nonfiction writer, essayist, journalist, folklorist, autobiographer, and editor.

Miller is best known for nonfiction works that critics describe as “literary natural history.” Such books as The Old Red Sandstone; or, New Walks in an Old Field (1841) and Foot-prints of the Creator; or The Asterolepis of Stromness (1849) reflect both Miller's studies as a scientist, particularly in the field of geology, and his skills as an engaging prose stylist. These works, along with Miller's autobiography, My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854), reveal their author as one of the most remarkable figures in nineteenth-century Scottish letters.

Biographical Information

Miller was born in Cromarty into a line of Scottish seafaring men. When he was five, his father died at sea, and Miller was subsequently raised by Harriet Roy, his father's second wife. Miller's stepmother and his uncles Alexander and James all imparted their strong religious values to Miller. Miller's family also instilled in him a love of reading. An intelligent but easily bored student, Miller was forced to leave school at the age of fifteen because of disciplinary problems. Between February 1820 and November 1822, he worked as an apprentice stonemason to his mother's brother-in-law, David Wright. His work as a stonemason in the subsequent years led to the publication of his first book, Poems, Written in the Leisure Hours of a Journeyman Mason (1829). That same year, he also published Letters on the Herring Fishing in the Moray Firth, a work that utilizes the detailed and highly descriptive prose style for which he later became known. While pursuing his literary interests, Miller met a member of the Cromarty women's literary society, Lydia Mackenzie Fraser. They loved each other but Miller refused to marry her so long as he remained a stonemason and thus a member of the working class. While continuing to write, publishing newspaper articles that revealed his special interest in geology, Miller became an accountant at the Commercial Bank in Cromarty, a position that provided him with sufficient income to marry Fraser. He found the routine of the position unpleasant, however, and began corresponding with geologists such as Sir Roderick Murchison and Louis Agassiz. Murchison later suggested to Miller that he undertake publishing a reference work that compiled his geological observations, advice which Miller eventually followed. In 1839, Miller was offered the opportunity to be the editor for The Witness, a Free Church of Scotland newspaper founded by the Reverend Robert A. Candlish. Under Miller's editorial guidance, it developed into a publication concerned with a variety of subjects, including literature and science. Miller's journalistic writings, some of which were posthumously collected in Essays: Historical and Biographical, Political and Social, Literary and Scientific (1862), illustrate Miller's interest in social reform and church policies. Miller's outspokenness in many of his articles caused tension between him and the Free Church of Scotland. Candlish unsuccessfully tried to replace Miller, who remained at the newspaper until his death. As a consequence of his years as a stonemason, Miller came to suffer from a malady common to workers in that occupation, in which stone and dust collects in the lungs. As his physical health declined, Miller also began to experience a deteriorating mental stability whose manifestations included frequent nightmares, delirium, and sleepwalking. Miller died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1856. His suicide note indicated that he believed his sleepwalking was evidence of a diseased mind.

Major Works

Miller's religious faith and his fascination with the natural history of Scotland provided the subject matter for much of his writing. Miller was a defender of the Bible as the ultimate source of knowledge pertaining to both the supernatural and the natural worlds, and he was thus an opponent of evolutionary theory. His attempts to reconcile geology and religion were combined with a passion for history and literature, giving works such as The Old Red Sandstone and Foot-prints of the Creator the broad scope and highly readable prose style that made them best-sellers in his lifetime. The combination of literary writing, scientific observation, and deeply held spiritual beliefs are also present in his autobiography, My Schools and Schoolmasters. In this work Miller represents himself as someone who raised himself above his working-class origins through hard work, religious faith, and intellectual pursuits. Because of this emphasis on personal development, some critics have viewed Miller's autobiography as an early example of the self-help book.

Critical Reception

A groundbreaking figure in the history of the sciences, Miller's works on natural history “were to be found in the remotest log-hut of the Far West, and on both sides of the Atlantic ideas of the nature and shape of geology were largely drawn from them” according to geologist Archibald Geikie. Modern critics still continue to study Miller's geological works, largely considering them seminal to the development of literary natural history as a genre. In addition to his legacy in natural history, Miller's works reflect the cultural changes in nineteenth-century Scottish society, specifically those deriving from the debate over the theory of evolution versus biblical doctrine. Although Miller's contributions to folklore are not as well recognized as his work in the sciences, some scholars such as David Alston consider Miller's importance as a folklorist to be significant, praising his thorough examination of the folklore and beliefs of a small geographical area. In addition, his political writings for The Witness illuminate various issues of reform that are vital to an understanding of mid-nineteenth-century Scottish society. They also, as George Rosie maintains, cover a wide variety of subjects pertaining to countries outside the British Isles—from parliamentary proceedings in Canada, to the introduction of the guillotine in Constantinople. For their complex mingling of scientific, personal, religious, and sociopolitical themes, and for their engaging and highly readable style, Miller's works continue to be esteemed by scientists and literary scholars alike.