Steven Millhauser Millhauser, Steven (Vol. 21) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Steven Millhauser 1943–

American adult novelist.

Millhauser explores the pains and pleasures of growing up through the fascination children and teenagers have for violence and the unknown. Suicide and deadly games often play important roles in his books. The adult world has a peripheral existence in the author's fiction and is important only as an illumination of childhood. Millhauser relieves his unsentimental, sometimes harsh vision of childhood through a subtle playfulness of tone. Another major concern in Millhauser's writings is literature; his works parody specific genres and authors and abound in literary allusions.

Millhauser deeply impressed critics and readers with his fresh approach to childhood and adolescence in his first two books. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright satirizes literary biographies which too often concentrate on the trivialities of a writer's life. On the surface, a comprehensive study of the language and lore of middle-class childhood, the story also presents childhood genius and creativity cut short by the limitations imposed by adults. The tone and characterization of the book have been compared to both Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and J. D. Salinger's stories about the Glass family. The admittedly beautiful prose has been criticized for lacking any real meaning, yet critics cite a maturity and originality not often found in a first novel.

Portrait of a Romantic, Millhauser's second book, continues the subjects of Edwin—art, human relationships, and childhood—into their later, darker phases and deals mostly with the more disturbing and destructive forces of growing up. With Portrait, Millhauser has been accused of neglecting acne, guilt, paranoia, and other aspects of a normal adolescence, while drawing praise for his competent handling of the characters's sensibilities. Millhauser is considered an important new talent in contemporary literature for his unconventional attitudes toward childhood and for his outstanding talent at description.

The New Republic

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edwin Mullhouse was a Connecticut boy who wrote the novel Cartoons and who died under strange circumstances at age 11; Jeffrey Cartwright, his neighbor, classmate and friend, wrote this biography a year later. That's Steven Millhauser's donnee, as Henry James would say; that's what we readers must accept [in Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer (1943–1954) by Jeffrey Cartwright] with a willing suspension of our disbelief. Believe it or not, it's well worth accepting. This is no "Peanuts"; Jeffrey is no oleaginous and self-pitying Charlie Brown; the novel has no Christian Message. Jeffrey is a Nabokovian child: witty, literate, perceptive and disturbingly complex. Edwin is different, an artist of the Beckettian sort. Their acquaintances, their schooldays, their relationship—all is grist for Jeffrey's mill and for Millhauser's beautifully shaped and polished description of the pleasures, sorrows and evils of childhood, of art and of life. Don't be put off by the apparent whimsy of the title and the youth of the characters; this is a mature, skillful, intelligent and often very funny novel—and the author's first. (p. 30)

[Childhood] is a life in itself, of course, with rather more variety to it than grownup life offers, and it is experienced with much more intensity than we jaded adults can generally manage. Millhauser's narrator conveys it marvelously, and he does equally well with the intricacies of that other Nabokovian theme, the relationship of the reader-critic to his author. On these topics and many others, the novel offers a steady stream of profits and pleasures…. (p. 31)

"A Few Novels: 'Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer (1943–1954) by Jeffrey Cartwright'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 167, No. 10, September 16, 1972, pp. 30-1.

William Hjortsberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer (1943–1954). By Jeffrey Cartwright"], Steven Millhauser's deft first novel,… offers a substantial amount of truth disguised as elegant artifice….

Stop for a moment and consider the child as artist. In a sense every child is an artist. Just as the intricately-contrived private lunacies of madmen are at heart one with the creative act, so too, the uninhibited crayon scrawls of an infant are the joyously self-indulgent motions of an artist. Art is a magic act. The Cro-Magnon of Lascaux knew that; Picasso knows it too. Children dwell in a world of magic. At will, any child can conjure up surroundings more desirable than the material world of his elders; he, too, is a magician, an artist.

Although Steven Millhauser knows this, his narrator, young Jeffrey Cartwright, does not. Disappointed by Edwin Mullhouse's answers to his queries into the meaning of "Cartoons," he writes: "Either he did not understand the nature and meaning of his book, and its relation to life, or else his mind grappled with these matters in so curious and personal a manner as to be unable to communicate its findings to intellects organized in a more commonplace way." Poor Jeffrey misses the point. Sadly, he is not alone.

But what of Steven Millhauser's novel, considered as a work of art? Certainly, it displays an enviable amount of craft, the harsh discipline that...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: [Edwin Mullhouse] is a novel….

Let me add one more thing. Steven Millhauser, who is the only begetter of Cartwright, Mullhouse, Cartwright's biography, and Millhauser's novel, is a dazzlingly successful writer. He is also a precocious imitator of Vladimir Nabokov, as he graciously acknowledges by characterizing Cartwright as a biographer who lives next to his subject; who, more or less accidentally, becomes involved in his subject's death; who admires his subject but also competes with him and is neglected by him; and who begins the book with a reference to an "invisible amusement park"—all signs of his literary father, Kinbote in Nabokov's Pale Fire. In evoking the tangled intellectual and emotional bonds between author and biographer, Millhauser is very nearly Nabokov's equal. And that's not all.

Millhauser seriously rivals his master in pellucid and witty descriptions…. Like Nabokov, he is quiveringly alert to metaphors: when he describes a girl "holding the spout of a watering can over the rim of a red plastic flowerpot from which a dark green plant overflowed," that last word is marvelously surprising, expected, and satisfying all at once. Like Nabokov, Millhauser surprises us with ironically structured actions as well as metaphors: "suddenly a shot rang out. It was only Edwin, chomping on a plump radish." Like Nabokov, Millhauser plays with allusions: "I also...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Joseph Kanon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like great actors in mediocre plays, there are some writers whose talent seems larger than the vehicles they have chosen to contain it. A case in point is [Edwin Mullhouse], a remarkably well-written and sometimes funny account of the hitherto unrecognized genius Edwin Mullhouse…. [The] narrative takes us from Edwin's first gurgles to his creative Later Years and, as such, is a devilish satire on those exhaustive biographies that weigh down shelves with their bulky worthiness and unrelieved tedium. The tone is sly and articulate, as if written by one of Salinger's Glass children, and though the initial idea is admittedly small and even fey, Millhauser makes the most (if not too much) of it, detailing for us the most ordinary of childhoods through Jeffrey's pompous New Crit perspective. (The two boys react to each other like a sinister Holmes and Watson—Edwin makes fun of Jeffrey, whom he rightly sees as a drip, and Jeffrey's underlying resentment and disapproval occasionally come to the narrative surface with quiet hilarity.) (pp. 73, 78)

This kind of elaborate literary conceit, of course, is beloved by academics because it presupposes not only a familiarity with existing literature but a conscious limiting of scope to emphasize verbal dexterity (something Nabokov used to more comic effect in Pale Fire). Millhauser takes some sideswipes at this approach and has some fun dropping pseudopedantic clues. But given his own...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

J. Justin Gustainis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Steven Millhauser, it seems to me, is attempting to do several things with his novel ["Edwin Mullhouse"]. First, and perhaps basically, he is writing a subtle satire on all of those biographies, which we occasionally find ourselves reading, that deal with the lives of people we never heard of when they were alive, and probably would not have cared much about if we did. You know the type. Ponderous details abound, regardless…. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as doing a job too well. Satirizing ponderousness is all very well, until it becomes ponderous.

Another facet of the book is, one suspects, designed to show the fabulous time that is childhood, with its constant discovery and continuing mysteries. Personally, I don't think childhood is that wonderful (at least mine wasn't, but perhaps I was deprived). Mr. Millhauser's favorite device for exhibiting the wonderfulness (to borrow a word from Bill Cosby) of being really young is a merciless, unremitting assault of visual images upon every sentence in the book. Description is fine, even necessary, but this kind of stuff is plain ridiculous: "He looked forward to these weekly shopping trips with an eagerness bordering on frenzy, and not simply for the sake of the peanut machines …: he looked forward to the trips also for the sake of the numbers."… Three hundred pages of this is enough to give one dysentery.

I found this novel tedious, irritating, and just a little too cute to stomach.

J. Justin Gustainis, "Fiction: 'Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1972, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 32, No. 14, October 15, 1972, p. 335.

Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Little could James Joyce have foreseen the avalanche of cliché he was setting in motion when he began A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with [a] now legendary sentence…. In thousands of first novels since Joyce's revolutionary use of the baby artist's earliest lisping literacies half a century ago, a precocious horde of sensitive, rebellious, grimly ambitious children—every last one of them wise and gifted beyond his tender years—have marched to the same leitmotif: The child is father of the novelist, and the proper study of a young writer is Himself when young.

It has been left to the ingenious imagination of still another first novelist, a Brown University graduate student named...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Millhauser's first novel received wide critical attention and excellent reviews but few readers. (Although those readers tend to grapple him to their soul with hoops of steel.) If these facts mean anything, they probably mean not that Millhauser is a coterie writer but that he is less confusable with other writers…. We tend not to like new things; for this reason our first question about a novelty is likely to be "what's it like?" If it is like nothing we know, we shy away. In art this happens all the time. When we say that a first-rate writer must create his own audience, we mean little more than that he must bring out latent tastes in his audience since he has chosen not to appeal to those already developed. In...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

Sheldon Frank

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is something very disconcerting and peculiar about Steven Millhauser's fiction. It is written with the discipline of a man far beyond his thirty-four years. Millhauser is a novelist of decided yet disquieting talent, a prisoner of his own acute intelligence and self-consciousness. A young man who knows too much, Millhauser has to learn to relax when he writes….

[Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright] was a debut of striking inventiveness written in dazzling visual prose, yet marred by a coy and self-congratulatory cleverness and an almost spooky self-control. His new novel, Portrait of a Romantic, picks up where...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

George Stade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Steven Millhauser's first novel, "Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright," is probably the best Nabokovian novel not written by the master himself…. As it turns out, the back-and-forths through which the biographer invents his author and the author his biographer stir the mind and agitate the emotions as unexpectedly as do the ins and outs through which nature and art invent each other in Nabokov—through which, for example, the critic Kinbote and the poet John Shade invent each other in "Pale Fire." Millhauser's demonstration that the preadolescent imagination is a lost genius within us all provides the Nabokovian note of pathos. That the author's name is so...

(The entire section is 881 words.)

William Kennedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Faulkner argued that the problems of children were not worth writing about. He wrote frequently about children himself, but he treated their lives as windows on the adult world, or as early parallels to mature venality, obsession, or tragedy. Similarly, he placed high value on [J. D. Salinger's] The Catcher In The Rye, mainly because the odyssey of Holden Caulfield was such an earnest and telling rebuke to contemporary morality….

[Portrait of a Romantic] is a rebuke to Faulkner's view of youth as trivial, for Millhauser successfully excavates childhood to reveal its hidden wonders and dismal dangers. His children are not paradigms of their own later existence, for they do not...

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John Calvin Batchelor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Millhauser's Portrait Of A Romantic, 29-year-old Arthur Grumm sits down to reminisce about his youth. The story thus has a limitation placed upon it that is as provocative as it is claustrophobic. We can only suppose what has become of the mature Arthur by imagining the potential of his vision of himself as a pubescent in suburban New York.

This is not as irksome as it might seem, however, if it is recalled that Millhauser's well-received first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), pretended to be the biography of a precocious 11-year-old suicide who is remembered, years later, by a childhood chum. Millhauser seems to be writing the seven ages of man, or, perhaps more scientifically, the...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

William Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Portrait of a Romantic is about 30,000 words too long, and most of them are adjectives; massed battalions of them, lovingly marshalled in pages of relentlessly detailed description for what is, at a second glance, a disarmingly slight tale.

The romantic in question is the prosaically named Arthur Grumm and the novel concerns itself with the first year or so of his adolescence and his relationships with three friends in an anonymous American suburb some time—I would guess—in the 1950s. The friends slot themselves easily into prototypical roles…. Such narrative drive as there is laboriously works its way around to dangerous games of Russian roulette with a loaded pistol that finally put...

(The entire section is 462 words.)