Steven Millhauser Millhauser, Steven (Vol. 109) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–54, by Jeffrey Cartwright, (novel) 1972
Portrait of a Romantic (novel) 1977
From the Realm of Morpheus (novel) 1986
In the Penny Arcade (short stories) 1986
The Barnum Museum (short stories) 1990
Little Kingdoms (novellas) 1993
Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (novel) 1996
The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (short stories) 1998

Michiko Kakutani (review 12 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Where Everyday Life Intersects with the Magical," in The New York Times, June 12, 1990, p. C17.

[Below, Kakutani reviews several of Millhauser's short story collections, praising the writing style but finding several of the stories lacking in character or plot development.]

To read Steven Millhauser's fiction is to enter a fairy-tale kingdom of "the mysterious, the magical, the unexpected." Like his earlier books (In the Penny Arcade, From the Realm of Morpheus), The Barnum Museum is crammed full with amazing events, perplexing characters, strange exercises in sleight of hand. A magician conjures up the head of a girl named Greta, who takes on a life of her own ("Eisenheim the Illusionist"). A merchant sailor visits a distant country that is besieged by a giant bird ("The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad"). A lonely, unhappy man buys a postcard that slowly comes to life ("The Sepia Postcard").

Nearly all the stories in this collection are concerned with two worlds (the familiar, sunlit world of everyday life and the dark, intriguing world of the imagination) and the boundaries that lie between them. In "Alice, Falling"—a kind of annotation of the first chapter of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland—the heroine notices that a change comes about as she falls down the rabbit hole: "the mysterious shaft or vertical tunnel through which she is falling begins to seem familiar to her, with its cupboards, its shelves, its lamplit bumps and hollows, while the upper world grows shadowy and strange; and as she falls she has to remind herself that somewhere far above, suddenly the air is blinding blue, white-and-yellow daisies grow in a green field, on a sloping bank her sister sits reading in sun-checked shade."

"Behind the Blue Curtain" and the title story of this collection similarly delineate the world of wonders that lies just on the other side of our workaday world. In the first, Mr. Millhauser uses the metaphor of a movie theater, taking us behind the screen to reveal a backstage realm in which characters step out of their film roles to hold conversations with one another. In the next, he compares the realm of the imagination to a...

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Jay Cantor (review date 24 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Free Fall to Wonderland," in The New York Times Book Review, June 24, 1990, p. 16.

[Cantor is an author and a MacArthur Prize Fellow. Below, he reviews Millhauser's collection The Barnum Museum.]

"Imagination dead, imagine," Samuel Beckett moaned, dismayed to discover that even to write the demise of the imagination would be the imagination's work. Would this endless, pointless chase after imaginary rabbits never cease?

Whoa, you moody Irish brooder! Steven Millhauser, inhabitant of a sunnier, more American frame of mind, also takes the imagination as his subject [in The Barnum Museum], attempting, in this tightly focused collection of...

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Douglas Balz (review date 5 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Collection of Cunning Escape Routes for Fleeing the Mundane," in The Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1990, p. 7.

[In the following review, Balz favorably assesses The Barnum Museum.]

Among the pleasures of literature, and there are many, is one that is absent from much of the self-conscious fiction of recent years. It is what made readers of most of us when we were too young to know better, but that doesn't make it just a childish delight. It may, in fact, be the root of the storytelling impulse; the desire to escape a humdrum world of ordinary appearances for one where anything and everything is possible.

Steven Millhauser's new book, The...

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Aram Saroyan (review date 30 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Surreal as Substance," in The Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1990, p. 11.

[Below, Saroyan gives a mixed review of the stories in The Barnum Museum.]

In more than a few of the 10 stories that comprise The Barnum Museum it's as if a prodigious, bizarre and photographic imagination is struggling mightily to pin itself to the mat of the post-modern story as practiced, for example, by the late Donald Barthelme. Steven Millhauser does his best to distance his art, to make it cool in the manner of accomplished predecessors, but the effect is sometimes like seeing a gorgeous butterfly—say a tiger-swallow-tail—mounted under glass, and then catching a...

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Jens Rieckmann (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mocking a Mock Biography: Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus," in Neverending Stories: Toward a Critical Narratology, edited by Ann Fehn, Ingeborg Hoesterey, and Maria Tatar, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 62-9.

[Below, Rieckmann uses Edwin Mullhouse and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus to examine the literary role of the mock biography.]

When Steven Millhauser's first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer (1943–1954), by Jeffrey Cartwright was published in 1972, several reviewers remarked on its Nabokovian qualities and pointed to Pale Fire as the most...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 25 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, in Publishers Weekly, March 25, 1996, pp. 62-3.

[Below, the critic provides a brief plot summary and favorable review of Martin Dressler.]

Literature's romance with the building-as-metaphor earns new energy through Millhauser's latest novel [Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer] (after Little Kingdoms, 1993), which quietly chronicles the life of an entrepreneur whose career peaks when he builds a fabulous hotel in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Beginning with his first jobs—in his father's cigar shop and as a bellhop—young Martin's rise is fueled by a happy blend...

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Washington Post (review date 28 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "When Fairy Tales Come True," in The Washington Post, April 28, 1996, p. 3.

[In the following review, the critic provides a plot summary and positive review of Martin Dressler.]

Steven Millhauser is a wonderfully gifted and original writer who had the rather considerable misfortune to write an absolutely brilliant first novel. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–54 was published in 1972—it has just been reissued in paperback by Vintage—and was reviewed with near-universal enthusiasm. 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...

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Diana Postlethwaite (review date 6 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cities of the Mind," in The Nation, May 6, 1996, pp. 68-72.

[In the following review, Postlethwaite compares the development of the theme of the world of the imagination in Edwin Mullhouse and Martin Dressler.]

On the surface, Steven Millhauser's first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954, and his most recent, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, appear radically different in subject and scope. Edwin Mullhouse—the outrageously exhaustive literary biography (written by an 11-year-old!) of a writer whose "Early," "Middle" and "Late" periods span kindergarten through fifth...

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Steven Millhauser with Jennifer Schuessler (interview date 6 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Steven Millhauser: The Business of Dreaming," in Publishers Weekly, May 6, 1996, pp. 56-7.

[In the following interview, Millhauser provides some insight on his perspectives regarding the creative process.]

Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, is perhaps best known as the home of the oldest racetrack in America, where Texans in the obligatory ten-gallon hats and the more genteel traditional horsey set gather each August for the Travers Stakes. But Steven Millhauser's imagination is captured more by structures like the old Batchelor mansion, an elaborately painted and turreted Victorian folly a few blocks off the main drag. "The man who built that was not...

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Janet Burroway (review date 12 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Heartbreak Hotel," in The New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1996, p. 8.

[In the following review, Burroway favorably assesses Martin Dressler.]

"Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams." So says the narrator of Steven Millhauser's story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," and that claim, might stand as an epigraph to his new conjuring trick of a novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer.

This wonderful, wonder-full book is a fable and phantasmagoria of the sources of our century "There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest...

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R. Z. Sheppard (review date 10 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Trump, the Early Days," in Time, June 10, 1996, pp. 82-3.

[In the following review, Sheppard discusses Martin Dressler, suggesting that the architectural structures in the story are metaphors for American culture.]

Why do novelists like to stereotype American entrepreneurs as single-minded and heartless? Perhaps because so many are. Herman Melville set the tone in 1857 with The Confidence-Man. Mark Twain later brought the national style of go-getting to popular perfection in Huckleberry Finn. An adult rereading of that masterpiece reveals a hierarchy of hustlers, from runaway slave Jim and his fortune-telling hair ball to the outlandish...

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Dinitia Smith (essay date 9 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shy Author Likes to Live and Work in Obscurity," in The New York Times, April 9, 1997, pp. C13, C18.

[In the following essay, Smith provides some biographical information about the author and a summary of his works.]

The writer Steven Millhauser was teaching his fiction workshop class at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Monday afternoon when the chairman of his department entered the classroom and handed him a note asking him to call a reporter from a local newspaper "re: Pulitzer." "I told my students that a grotesque error had been committed," Mr. Millhauser said yesterday, "and that I had to straighten it out."

Of course, it...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Birkerts, Sven. A review of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, by Steven Millhauser. The Yale Review 85, No. 1 (January 1997): 144-49.

A review of Martin Dressler in which Birkerts calls the book a "Horatio Alger novel with a twist, a bildungsroman of American capitalism."

Kunkel, Benjamin. A review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser. The Nation 266, No. 19 (25 May 1988): 33-5.

A positive review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories in which Kunkel praises Millhauser's prose as "lucid, exact...

(The entire section is 125 words.)