UCI News

Remembering Distinguished Professor Emeritus J. Hillis Miller

Influential scholar established UCI as national leader in critical theory

by Pat Harriman, UCI | February 11, 2021
Remembering Distinguished Professor Emeritus J. Hillis Miller
J. Hillis Miller, UCI Distinguished Professor Emeritus of comparative literature and English, died Feb. 7 in Sedgwick, Maine. He was 92. Jeremy Maryott

In its 55-year history, UCI has built renowned programs in many fields, but none surpass its critical theory program, which is widely considered the best in the country. And J. Hillis Miller is the primary reason why.

A titan in his field, the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of comparative literature and English died Feb. 7 in Sedgwick, Maine. He was 92 years old. Miller played a pivotal role in establishing UCI as the national leader in the study of critical theory, a distinction it continues to hold today.

“Hillis Miller was an intellectual giant in the field of literary studies. He influenced multiple generations of scholars – not only in the United States but also abroad,” says Tyrus Miller, dean of UCI’s School of Humanities. “The last time I was in China, a couple of years ago, I was asked again and again about Hillis Miller. It’s no exaggeration to say that he played a huge role in making UCI’s School of Humanities the internationally regarded institution it is today.”

Hillis Miller came to UCI in 1986 from Yale University, where he gained fame as a member of the “Yale School” of deconstructive literary criticism, a tremendously influential approach to understanding the relationship between text and meaning, inspired by the work of colleague Jacques Derrida. While at UCI, Miller made extraordinary contributions as a scholar, teacher and campus citizen. He helped recruit Derrida to campus, and together they established UCI’s reputation for the rigorous study of critical theory. It was during those years that the highest-ranked Ph.D. programs at UCI were all in humanities, due in great part to Miller’s stature and successful recruiting of other luminaries.

Although he formally retired in 2001, Miller remained active as a scholar, lecturer, teacher and mentor. Widely known for his intellectual and personal generosity with colleagues, students and others, Miller chaired or served on the dissertation committees of more than 20 students at UCI alone; he also supervised many dissertations at UCLA, UC Berkeley and Australia’s University of Queensland.

Miller earned a B.A. at Oberlin College and, in 1952, a Ph.D. at Harvard University. He was active in such professional organizations as the Modern Language Association, serving as its president in 1986. Remarkably prolific, he wrote 35 influential books and countless articles. Miller and his wife, Dorothy, were known for years as gracious and generous presences on campus and in University Hills. Dorothy Miller died a few weeks before her husband.