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.
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 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.