Steven Millhauser Millhauser, Steven - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Steven Millhauser 1943-

(Full name Steven Lewis Millhauser) American short fiction writer and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Millhauser's short fiction career through 2000.

Millhauser is recognized for his novellas and short stories that explore the world of childhood imagination and wonder. The subject of his stories is frequently the artist and the dreamer, the illusionist who creates worlds to satisfy the needs of others for fantasy. Millhauser's use of the fantastic has inspired comparisons between his work and that of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino.

Biographical Information

Millhauser was born on August 3, 1943, in New York City. He grew up in Connecticut, where he father was an English professor at the University of Bridgeport. In 1965 Millhauser received his B.A. from Columbia University; he later attended graduate school at Brown University for three years. In 1972 his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, was published. Millhauser became a Visiting Associate Professor in English at Williams College in 1986. A few years later, he became an Associate Professor at Skidmore College in New York, and since 1992 Millhauser has been Professor of English there. He has won several awards for his fiction, including a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1996).

Major Works of Short Fiction

The stories and novellas in Millhauser's oeuvre explore the role of imagination and fantasy and often blur the boundaries between reality and illusion. His first collection of stories, In the Penny Arcade (1985), is divided into three sections. The first contains the novella August Eschenburg, a tale about a German boy named August who creates lifelike models for store windows and an automaton theater. He dreams about infusing his creations with life, but when a rival exploits this craft for pornographic purposes, August gives up his fantasy. The second section is comprised of three more conventional stories, including “A Sledding Party,” in which a teenager is disconcerted by the romantic attentions from a male friend. The final section of the collection includes three stories that return to Millhauser's recurrent interest in the world of imagination, including the title story. In this tale a young boy returns to a seedy arcade from his childhood. For one brief moment he sees the idealized arcade from his youth, only to return to reality. Millhauser's next collection of short stories, The Barnum Museum (1990), explores illusion, fantasy, and modern mythology. For example, in “The Sepia Postcard,” the narrator of the story buys an old, faded postcard only to discover that the closer he examines the card, the more vivid the characters in it become. “Alice, Falling” conveys the literary character Alice's thoughts while tumbling down the rabbit hole toward Wonderland. Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998) includes “The Sisterhood of Night,” a story that features a group of young girls accused of practicing witchcraft. In the title story, Hensch the knife thrower arrives in a small town to perform his act in front of excited townspeople. By the end of the night, two young women have been wounded, and another possibly killed. Millhauser's novella, Enchanted Night (1999), consists of seventy-four short, titled prose sections that focus on several characters on a moonlit night in a small southern Connecticut town.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Millhauser's short fiction has been mixed. Reviewers generally commend his fluid prose, his utilization of detail and vivid imagery, and the imaginative nature of his work. Yet, although critics often praise individual stories, several assert that the pieces are too much alike in theme and imagery. Some commentators view Millhauser's work as static, slowed by sluggish pacing and striving for effect, while others deride his stories as too precious and even banal. However, Millhauser's novellas and short stories have been favorably compared to the work of such authors as John Barth and Franz Kafka.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

In the Penny Arcade: Stories 1985

The Barnum Museum: Stories 1990

Little Kingdoms: Three Novellas 1993

Knife Thrower and Other Stories 1998

Enchanted Night: A Novella 1999

King in the Tree: Three Novellas 2003

Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (novel) 1972

Portrait of a Romantic (novel) 1977

From the Realm of Morpheus (novel) 1986

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (novel) 1996

Richard Eder (essay date 8 January 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “This ‘Penny’ Shortchanges the Reader.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 January 1986): 6.

[In the following essay, Eder asserts that the stories of In the Penny Arcade “all suffer to varying degrees from overarrangement and an evident striving for effect.”]

[In In The Penny Arcade] Steven Millhauser's seven short stories are so carefully made that they seem overdressed. They sit stiffly on the page as if wary of wrinkling their velvet.

Several of them are written with a lush realism, shot through with weather, colors and states of feeling. Others are elaborate inventions with touches of fable or legend or magic. One is a triumph. None is without intelligence, and some possess quite a lot. But they all suffer to varying degrees from overarrangement and an evident striving for effect.

In the three realistic stories, Millhauser avoids entirely the chill and distance that pervade the work of quite a few of his contemporaries. The question is whether he has also avoided the outside weather that brings the temperature down and pulls the narrator away. An Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff write in some kind of limbo season, late February, when winter has lost force, and there is no sign of spring. For Millhauser, it is always Epiphany.

The 30-year-old protagonist of “A Day in the Country,” a successful career woman, finds herself undone when a strange fellow-guest at a vacation resort tells her she looks unhappy. A paroxysm of weeping and a moonlight walk accomplish a cleansing, suddenly, she is older and in control.

Two other stories also portray the small but telling crisis of a growing pain. In “A Protest Against the Sun,” a teen-age girl, clinging briefly to the safety of her parents on an excursion to the beach, is violently troubled by the sight of a young man who seems to challenge the sunny occasion by parading hooded in a heavy parka. In “A Sledding Party,” another teen-ager finds a different kind of safety threatened. The comfortable circle of her friends is...

(The entire section is 894 words.)

Michael Dirda (review date 18 June 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dirda, Michael. “In Which Wonders Never Cease.” Washington Post Book World (18 June 1990): B1, B10.

[In the following review, Dirda maintains that “like many readers, I find Steven Millhauser irresistible, even while recognizing, grudgingly, that for others the stories in The Barnum Museum may possess an artificiality that makes them seem abstract or even lifeless.”]

A storyteller's most important gift is an ability to enchant the reader. There are lots of ways of doing this—an exciting plot, a charming style, a distinctive world view—but all of them serve one end: to create “a waking dream” that will keep us turning the pages. A book fails when its spell is broken. Then we find ourselves packing holes in the plot, being irritated by stylistic tics and getting bored with the author's obsessions.

The best writers tread gingerly between enchantment and irritation. They push their techniques to the limit—and sometimes beyond it. Ulysses bedazzles, Finnegans Wake bedevils. Even the most addicted Proustian sometimes wants to scream: “Marcel, just go to sleep already.”

Ultimately this means that one must approach any book in the right spirit, must be sympathetically in tune to its particular magic.

Like many readers, I find Steven Millhauser irresistible, even while recognizing, grudgingly, that for others the stories in The Barnum Museum may possess an artificiality that makes them seem abstract or even lifeless.

Millhauser is a prose poet, a creator of artifacts of the imagination, and as such is not the author for anyone looking for red-blooded American action. Very little of consequence happens in his tales; most are simply descriptions of the marvelous. “Alice, Falling” relates Alice's thoughts while tumbling down the rabbit hole toward Wonderland. “A Game of Clue” imagines that Miss Scarlet, Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum are actually alive, gradually contrasting their amorous entanglements and philosophic misunderstandings with the confused personal relations among four young game players. “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad” interweaves three story lines: a portrait of Sinbad in retirement in his garden, an account of his fabulous, hitherto untold eighth voyage, and a brief history of scholarship about “The Arabian Nights.”

All this may sound like just another twee trip down post-modernism's memory lane. Didn't Borges and Nabokov, Barth and Calvino mine all the gold out of this vein? Well, judge for yourself. Here is the opening sentence to...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)

Irving Malin (review date summer 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The Barnum Museum, by Steven Millhauser. Review of Contemporary Fiction 10 (summer 1990): 261-62.

[In the following review, Malin offers a positive assessment of The Barnum Museum.]

Although Millhauser has written four remarkable books, he has not received sustained, profound criticism. His latest collection [The Barnum Museum] of fictions compels me to look once again at his work.

Millhauser is a romantic writer; he refuses to accept the routine structures of daily life. He believes that his fiction offers a way “out of the world.” He offers fictions that are sly, sympathetic, rebellious—these...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Irving Howe (essay date fall 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Howe, Irving. “An Afterword.” Salmagundi, no. 92 (fall 1991): 110-14.

[In the following essay, Howe offers a close reading of Millhauser's Catalogue of the Exhibition.]

Since Steven Millhauser's novella is experimental in form—I'm not aware of another prose fiction structured as an art show catalogue—let me try, by way of response, a little experiment in criticism. Instead of offering a “finished” analysis of this piece, I propose to reconstruct the steps by which I tried to apprehend it. Anyone familiar with the practice of criticism knows of course that we cannot really break down the process of reading and judgment into a series of ordered steps....

(The entire section is 1768 words.)

Mary Kinzie (essay date fall 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kinzie, Mary. “Succeeding Borges, Escaping Kafka: On the Fiction of Steven Millhauser.” Salmagundi, no. 92 (fall 1991): 115-44.

[In the following essay, Kinzie explores the defining characteristics of Millhauser's short fiction and finds parallels between his work and that of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka.]

“Sinbad shifts in his seat.” So reads a sentence from a remarkable new story by Steven Millhauser, “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad.”1 The diction, demeanor, indeed the whole rhetorical and genre “set” of that sentence is peculiar. Sinbad, the quasi-mythic hero of the Thousand and One Nights, the object (as Millhauser points...

(The entire section is 10909 words.)

Michael Dirda (review date 5 September 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dirda, Michael. “Worlds Within Worlds.” Washington Post Book World (5 September 1993): 5, 14.

[In the following review of Little Kingdoms, Dirda addresses Millhauser's reputation as a writer of meticulous tales.]

“Reviews,” finally concludes Steven Millhauser, “did not know which to praise more, the meticulous artistry or the haunting fantasy.” Though Millhauser is talking about the animated feature “Dime Store Days,” the creation of the 1920s hero of his novella The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne, the same words might also sum up the enthusiastic reception of his own best work. For no one alive, except perhaps James Salter or...

(The entire section is 1346 words.)

Alan Davis (essay date spring 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Alan. “Unseen Guests.” Hudson Review 47, no. 1 (spring 1994): 141-48.

[In the following excerpt, Davis provides a favorable review of Millhauser's novella The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne.]

[The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne is] the best (and by far the longest) of the three novellas which comprise Little Kingdoms, Steven Millhauser's sixth book. By now, after such books as In the Penny Arcade and The Barnum Museum, his modus operandi is clear. His characters are convincing enough emotionally and his fiction is packed with ordinary detail, but his fictional premises and occasions are meant to remind us...

(The entire section is 2572 words.)

Douglas Fowler (essay date winter 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fowler, Douglas. “Steven Millhauser, Miniaturist.” Critique 37, no. 2 (winter 1996): 139-48.

[In the following essay, Fowler praises Millhauser as a miniaturist, claiming that this role sets the author apart from other contemporary writers and allows him to create “exquisite, apolitical, socially indifferent” tales.]

In an essay he calls “The Fascination of the Miniature,” Steven Millhauser writes, “We inhabit a universe so utterly alien that to look steadily at that blaze of darkness would burn out the eyes of the mind” (33). He continues: “The miniature … is an attempt to reproduce the universe in graspable form. It represents a desire to...

(The entire section is 4873 words.)

Arthur M. Saltzman (essay date winter 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Saltzman, Arthur M. “In the Millhauser Archives.” Critique 37, no. 2 (winter 1996): 149-60.

[In the following essay, Saltzman analyzes the role of lists in Millhauser's fiction.]

The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed.

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

If it is true that God is in the details, then a writer's hubris and his humility are equally evident in his lists. The making of lists praises and competes with Creation at the same time. Lists are at once mannered in their disciplined salvage and promiscuous in their insistent battenings....

(The entire section is 5714 words.)

Marvin J. LaHood (review date winter 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: LaHood, Marvin J. Review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser. World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 148-49.

[In the following review, LaHood elucidates the disparity between Millhauser's short stories and realistic fiction.]

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Steven Millhauser (in 1996 for Martin Dressler) is a skillful writer; it seems as if he is capable of picking just the right word every time, putting them in sequences that mesmerize and fascinate. The worlds he creates are fantastic realms of magic carpets, amusement parks almost beyond our imagination, and department stores of dizzying complexity. The world...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

Brian Evenson (review date summer 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Evenson, Brian. Review of Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 2 (summer 2000): 180-81.

[In the following review, Evenson offers a mixed assessment of Enchanted Night.]

Millhauser's latest offering [Enchanted Night] is a lean novella consisting of seventy-four short, titled prose sections. Through these Millhauser chronicles a moonlit summer night in Connecticut. He alternates between several different story lines: a mannequin coming to life, a drunken and lonely man stumbling home, a girl waiting for a lover that may or may not exist, a failed author and his abortive relations with a childhood friend's...

(The entire section is 342 words.)