Walter M. Miller, Jr. Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Walter M(ichael) Miller, Jr. 1923–

American novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is generally regarded as one of the outstanding achievements of speculative literature. This novel is set in the future and depicts the gradual reestablishment of civilization following nuclear catastrophe. The novel generated much popular and critical attention upon publication, and the continuing relevance of its themes has helped sustain its popularity among both young adult and adult readers.

A Canticle for Leibowitz employs a three-part structure which parallels the development of Western civilization from the Dark Ages to modern times and emphasizes the cyclical nature of history. One of the principal themes of the novel, which Miller explores through allusions to the traditions of Roman Catholicism, is the role of religion in society. In addition, Miller details the impact on society of advances in science and technology. For these reasons, critics have variously categorized Canticle as historical, religious, or science fiction. Many agree that the scope of Canticle extends beyond these areas, since Miller's blending of themes results in a wealth of interpretations. Miller's focus on the responsibility of individuals in shaping the course of society gives the novel a moral perspective as well. Canticle won the Hugo Award in 1961.

Miller began his literary career in the early 1950s by contributing tales to various science fiction magazines. Many of these stories were later collected in The Science Fiction Stories of Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1978) and The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1980). As a whole, Miller's short fiction has inspired relatively little critical interest. "The Darfsteller," however, won a Hugo Award in 1955 as best novelette. This story is representative of Miller's short fiction in its examination of both the constructive and destructive effects of new technology.

(See also CLC, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)

Edwin Kennebeck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Canticle for Leibowitz, a] very good, partly humorous historical novel, is about the role of the Church as the preserver of wisdom and spiritual life in dark ages, but its era is in the future rather than the past. (p. 632)

The telling of the story is intelligent, skillfully oblique, and often funny. Mr. Miller evidently knows a good deal about the language and protocol of the Church, and he cleverly adapts its forms—such as prayers and official pronouncements in Latin—to the pattern of his story. (pp. 633-34)

Those who have seen the motion picture "On the Beach," which I think completely avoids or cheapens the serious problems with which it pretends to deal, will find this...

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Edmund Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["A Canticle for Leibowitz"] is an extraordinary novel. It is apt to arouse either enthusiasm or distaste, but little middle ground opinion. It will be a most unusual literary experience even if you don't like it—but already it has made this reviewer and many other readers enormously enthusiastic.

It is projected into the future—it has elements in common with science fiction, yet it would be quite impossible to classify it narrowly as such. It is fanciful, yet as deeply true as any book I've read. It brilliantly combines several qualities: It is prodigiously imaginative and original, richly comic, terrifyingly grim, profound both intellectually and morally, and, above all, is simply such a...

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Robert Phelps

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Canticle for Leibowitz] is a curious and original and very serious book, and it will be so satisfactory to the right reader that I think a warning is in order: though the action takes place in the future, and though a space ship takes off on the final page, this should not be confused with what is usually called science fiction. In a way, it is a cautionary tale about man's perennial inhumanity to man, and the invevitable use he will make of scientific means to that end. But even this is not Mr. Miller's gist. What he has really written is a highly imaginative, and basically joyous, celebration of human kind's instinct to keep going, and especially of those members of the race who are not so much discoverers...

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Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Miller is a fine story teller at his best—which is in the opening section of ["A Canticle for Leibowitz"], depicting the medieval reprise. But when his time-machine shifts gears into the neo-Renaissance, it stalls in a bog of quasi-historical novelese. These chapters are overrun with thanes and clans and polyglot hugger-mugger concerning a baronial type named Hannegan II, who operates out of the Red River country, and has designs on the states of Laredo and Denver.

A graver misdemeanor is the author's heavy-handed approach to allegory; his far too explicit moralizing dulls the luster of his imaginative format.

Martin Levin, "Incubator of the New...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Without question A Canticle for Leibowitz is a most remarkable novel. The style is sharp, exact, completely individual, and above all alive. And the scale is huge—embracing life present, life past, and life future. Mr. Miller looks at life from the different angles of God and scientists and poets and priests and the Wandering Jew and—believe it or not—he makes sense out of it, and beauty too. Some critics have talked about this astonishing novel in terms of science fiction. That is an insult. Primarily and essentially it is religious and human.

"Seekers of the City," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3031, April 1, 1960, p. 205.


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Whitney Balliett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["A Canticle for Leibowitz"] is a work of the Imagination…. Miller, who is a dull, ashy writer, is forced to depend, in addition to his conjuring tricks, on heavyweight irony: A scientist founds the monastery; the monastery guards the very knowledge that leads to rediscovery and repeated annihilation; the Memorabilia are the principal baggage the monks carry when they leave the earth. But irony, after all, is only a kind of high-toned mockery. It entertains but it changes nothing. (pp. 159-60)

Whitney Balliett, in a review of "A Canticle for Leibowitz," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXXVI, No. 7, April 2, 1960, pp. 159-60.

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Stanley J. Rowland, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Failure to place A Canticle for Leibowitz … in its genre has caused some uncertainty and confusion in its reviews. Therefore we should first appreciate what kind of novel it is, realizing of course that all works in a given art form partake of common denominators, precluding a rigid boundary between kinds.

With this in mind we can say that A Canticle for Leibowitz belongs in the same category as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and contemporary works such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach and a number of science fiction stories. These works explore the possible consequences of man's mastery of nature through technology. (p. 640)


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Edward Ducharme

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The greatness of Miller's accomplishment [in A Canticle for Leibowitz] lies not in the mere telling of his marvelous story. After all, television, the movies, and hundreds of science fiction yarns have told the story of Man's folly several times well and many times poorly. And, while A Canticle does have nice touches of humor and irony that the others may lack, the narrative is not significantly above the level of the rest. Rather, the achievement lies in Miller's skillful handling of thought-provoking ideas. While dealing with potentially sensational plot materials (the possible end of the world and all that sort of thing), he has placed most of his emphasis on the moral issues of Man's way—his life...

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Raymond A. Schroth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Canticle first appeared, seven years ago, it was compared to Brave New World, 1984 and On the Beach. But in one way Canticle is more satisfying: it puts its theme in theological perspective. The critics praised it, faulted it for being "too Catholic," and have generally ignored it since. Yet the paperback—with a seared monk on its cover, transfigured against the blazing wreckage of civilization—has passed from friend to friend. Now it can be read not just as a piece of brilliant science-fiction warning about the coming nuclear deluge, but as an underground sub-Scripture classic, an ethical tract….

Despite all its futurism, Canticle seems curiously...

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Hugh Rank

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A curious book, which defies narrow categories, [A Canticle for Leibowitz] contains elements of satire, science-fiction, fantasy, humor, sectarian religious propaganda, and an apocalyptic "utopian" vision. Although much of its meaning can be discerned by any perceptive reader, it can be better understood with a few footnotes which place it in the context of recent "Catholic" writing. (pp. 213-14)

Because characterization in satire does not present a particular person so much as it illustrates a type, the satirist must not only avoid a trite repetition of commonplace stereotypes, but must also avoid the other extreme of obscuring the type by a fuller development of character. The essential...

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Michael Alan Bennett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Critics and reviewers have busied themselves in listing the various themes which lend substance and depth to [A Canticle for Leibowitz]. Stanley J. Rowland (The Christian Century, May 1960) [see excerpt above] has noted the thematic treatment of the issue of euthanasia and of the conflict between church (spiritual) and state (temporal) authority. Edward Ducharme (English Journal, November 1966) [see excerpt above] has claimed that "Miller's narrative continually returns to the conflicts between the scientist's search for truth and the state's power." To this list I would add that Miller also examines the occasional clash between scientific speculation and religious doctrine.


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David Samuelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Up until [the publication of A Canticle for Leibowitz] Miller had been regarded, in Sam Moskowitz's words, as "the perennially promising author." An engineer-turned-writer, he had published some forty-odd stories in the major science fiction magazines in the Fifties; several were chosen for anthologies, sometimes of the best stories in the field, but many of his tales are rather conventional and far from distinguished. "The Darfsteller," a story about a human actor struggling quixotically to compete in an age of automated stage plays, won for him a "Hugo" in 1955 for the previous year's best novelette, but he was not able to publish a collection of stories until after the success of his novel. The first...

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Harold L. Berger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Canticle for Leibowitz has] a special dreadfulness: the idea that the insanity of war is chronic, that man will return to ashes what he raises up from past ashes, until he is no more. Beginning six hundred years after the "Flame Deluge," Miller's episodic narrative carries the reader through twelve centuries of recovery to the beginning of another Deluge, one which, if not the last, will teach men nothing, but will only rewind the clockwork of futility. (pp. 151-52)

No doubt Miller's novel would have seemed most illiberal in less troubled times. Not only does he despair of man (not an exceptional attitude in any age), but he displays a strongly proclerical feeling vis-a-vis science…. Yet...

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David Samuelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although the biographical information available on Miller is sketchy, his personal experiences and the ambience of the decade in which he wrote are discernible in his fiction. His Southern origins, his wartime flying, his engineering education, his reading of history and anthropology, and his personal vision of his religion are all reflected in some of his stories. How his more private life might be involved is conjectural, but the social environment of America in the years following World War II is eminently visible. In that war, a technological elite had come to power, had defeated an evil enemy of seemingly archetypal proportions, and had emerged with a vision of unlimited energy and growth in peacetime.


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