Steven Millhauser Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
Award: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Millhauser is an American novelist and short story writer.
For furtherl information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 21 and 54.
Steven Millhauser writes of the world of the imagination. 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 artistic motivation is summarized in the opening line of his short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist" from the collection The Barnum Museum (1990): "Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams." Millhauser's lauded first novel, a mock biography, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–54, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972), is the story of Mullhouse, an eleven-year-old novelist, as told by his twelve-year-old biographer, Cartwright. The novel, which examines the wonder of childhood and imagination and suggests that all biography is inherently fiction, won the Prix Medicis Etranger. A Washington Post reviewer said of the novel: "It is at once a satire of literary biography, an evocation of childhood and an exploration of the creative mind; it is clever without being showy, its intelligence is daunting, and it has a surprisingly powerful effect upon the reader's emotions." Millhauser continued his examination of childhood with Portrait of a Romantic (1977), a fictional account of the narrator's life from ages twelve to fifteen. He followed that book with another novel, but the publisher balked at the 1,000-page manuscript and Millhauser refused to cut it. Eventually he did shorten the story and From the Realm of Morpheus (1986) was finally published in the same year as his short story collection, In the Penny Arcade. The collection, like the ones that followed—The Barnum Museum (1990) and Little Kingdoms (1993)—explored illusion, fantasy and modern mythology. A reviewer for The Washington Post said, "In those books Millhauser was experimenting with ways of treating American mythology, of intermingling the realistic and the fantastic into a unique fabric that might help us see ourselves in a clearer and more revealing light." Individually the stories were largely praised, but several critics felt they were too much alike. Douglas Balz observed that "many of the stories bear an uncomfortable resemblance to each other. Read one too many stories about a character's escape from the solid world of appearances—by falling down a rabbit hole ("Alice, Falling") or slipping past a theater curtain ("Behind the Blue Curtain")—and their impact is diminished." However, Balz praised Millhauser's examination of the imagination and his ability "to take us inside the labyrinth of prose," making comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Some critics view Millhauser's short stories as too static. Michiko Kakutani said, "While the reader delights in Mr. Millhauser's meticulously detailed descriptions, one waits and waits for something to occur." Millhauser brought the themes of illusion, fantasy, and what he called "the myth of the self-made man in America" into his next novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1996). Set in what Jennifer Schuessler described as "a precisely evoked, but oddly ethereal, New York City," Martin Dressler is the story of a sort of Horatio Alger of the imagination. Dressler rises from cigar store clerk to hotel magnate by being closely attuned to the needs of his customers' imagination. At the apex of his career, Dressler creates the ultimate fantasy land—The Grand Cosmo—a combination hotel and theme park. Diana Postlethwaite described the facility as "an amalgam of hotel, museum, department store, amusement park and theater—twenty-three levels underground, thirty above—containing (and I offer only the most partial of lists): rustic cottages, caves, a New England Village, a Moorish Bazaar, a Seance Parlor, a Temple of Poesy, an Asylum for the Insane, a Theatrum Mundi, stage sets of the solar system and 'black gardens of imagination' in a subterranean labyrinth. Millhauser's powers of description in this section of the book astound and delight." However, Millhauser does not portray the life of the imagination as perfect. Dressler's personal life and marriage are unsatisfactory. He overlooks a plain but interesting woman to marry her beautiful but vacuous sister who appeals to his fantasy. In what some critics consider the most telling development of the book, the hotel fails to attract customers, and Dressler allows actors to live there free of charge while they pretend to be customers. Janet Burroway concluded: "Martin Dressler coolly explores this American Dream in all its manifestations as aim, vision, intention, nightmare, hallucination, delusion, death. The great city—and by extension America, with its ever more exotic immigrants, its ever more hyperbolic advertising, its voracious ambition, its headlong rush into the 20th century—becomes 'a fever patient in a hospital, thrashing in its sleep, erupting in modern dreams.'" The book was awarded the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Millhauser was somewhat taken aback by the honor. Dinitia Smith related that Millhauser, who was told of the prize while lecturing to a class at Skidmore College, remarked, "I told my students that a grotesque error had been committed, and that I had to straighten it out."