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Q&A with MacArthur Genius Jeffrey Miller ’06

<p>Jeffrey Miller focuses on the works of Milton.</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.</h6>

Jeffrey Miller focuses on the works of Milton.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Literary scholar Jeffrey Alan Miller ’06 was named a MacArthur Fellow on Sept. 25. Miller graduated from the University with an A.B. in English and went on to receive an M.St. in 2007 and D.Phil. in 2012 from the University of Oxford.

Now, Miller is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. His research focuses on the writing processes of the Renaissance and Reformation. His forthcoming analysis of a historic notebook, which he identified as containing the earliest known draft of the King James Bible (sometimes referred to as theKJB), is much anticipated by the literary world.

Miller phoned The Daily Princetonian to discuss his research, his future plans in his career, and his time at the University. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The Daily Princetonian: Once again, congratulations on your receiving the MacArthur Genius Grant. To start off, it’s been about a month since you were recognized as a fellow — has the feeling you expressed in our previous conversation worn off yet?

Dr. Jeffrey Miller: Thanks so much for still wanting to talk to me about it! In the immediate week after, things were sort of a mess. It’s kind of nice to be doing [the interview] now, to have some chance to reflect back on it. You know, I would think, the surprise of it, the excitement of it, the gratitude for it, has certainly not worn off yet. I’m not sure that the combination of surprise, shock, and just extreme gratitude for it — I don’t think that will ever wear off.

In other ways though, yeah, kind of happily, things are starting to revert back to normal, which is nice, actually. In the weeks afterward, it was sort of a flurry of activity, [with] different media outlets wanting to talk to you … I received a call from the governor of New Jersey … So definitely the first month was kind of a gauntlet in terms of things that one has to do or feels obliged to do.

But also, I have a huge long list of emails from people who were incredibly influential to me that I really want to reach out to and say thank you … It’s a nice problem to have right now, thinking about writing a bunch of thank-you emails to people who either wrote to you to offer congratulations or were instrumental and influential in bringing you to this point.

I think that at this point it [being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship] is sort of old news for a lot of people — old news for my students, things like that, but it’s certainly not old news to me, and I am looking forward to having the chance now that things are a little bit less bewildering to sort of sit down in front of a computer and devote some days to sending a whole bunch of emails to people — so it’s a good problem to have.

DP: If you could describe your research in a way that a general audience could understand it, how would you explain it?

JM: In general, I study early modern or Renaissance literature, history, and theology, with a particular focus on the writings of John Milton, who is the author of “Paradise Lost,” and his contemporaries, and I suppose that I am especially interested in recovering a more dynamic conception of the role that the writing process itself could play in the shaping of authors’ works, thoughts, or beliefs, and in shaping broader developments in the period at large. So, I am interested in the way that the writing process itself, for example, could not only serve as a vehicle for expressing a thought or decision or a belief that a writer or translator had already had for themselves, but also that the writing process can be a vehicle for generating that thought, transforming that thought, in a way that doesn’t always have to be preceded by some locked-in authorial intention or translator intention.

So that’s what I am really interested in — [pursuing] a more dynamic conception of the role that the writing process itself played in why things turned out the way that they did.

DP: What exactly sparked your interest in Renaissance writing processes? What drew you specifically to the works of John Milton?

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JM: In some ways, it’s hard to think my way back too much to a time when I wasn’t interested in Milton. Certainly, I arrived on campus at Princeton already, if not fully in love yet, certainly quite smitten with Milton and his works. You know, I think the first time I read any portion of “Paradise Lost” was at some point in high school … I thought it was the most powerful piece of literature that I had ever read before…

I was always interested in the way that literature could intersect with theological or religious questions … I always found religious literature, religious questions interesting on an intellectual level and certainly grew up in a household that considered them important things to think about…

For me, at least, my own writing process has always sort of been something where I think through the process of writing. Writing to me never is a vehicle for offloading a thought that I’ve already had … I am interested in, I think, the way that most people have had that recognition [about their own work as writers], … and I’ve always been interested in how that was definitely happening in the case of the early modern period and prior works of literature, as well [...] I think as researchers and as students we tend to lose sight of that … I became extremely interested in exploring the way that the writing process could be a vehicle for discovery in the early modern period and not just expression.

DP: Where do you see your work headed? Are there any new, interesting facets you would like to explore?

JM: I think in some ways, part of what I’m going to be trying to do and use the MacArthur Fellowship — and I also received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for completing a work devoted to this early draft of the King James Bible that I identified — immediately what I’m planning to do is bring some of the projects that I’ve had on the go for quite some time to completion. So, I’d like to finish this book about Milton and this sort of idiosyncratic theological belief [about the prefigurative nature of history] that was shared by Milton and many of his contemporaries …

Then I’d like to finish this edition, a kind of full critical edition or study of this draft of the King James Bible. And then after that, maybe take a deep breath! [...] In terms of moving forward [from there], though, I’m really interested in finding different ways to continue exploring the writing process, both in the early modern period and potentially in other periods, as well. And I’m also interested in the archival implications of that.

One of the things I’m becoming increasingly interested in is if we take a more dynamic, a broader, a sort of revitalized conception of the writing process during the early modern period, will it potentially turn out to be the case that there are more drafts, things that actually deserve to be recognized as drafts of various works currently surviving in archives or elsewhere, there are more of those drafts than we tended to think did survive? … I think it’s possible that actually more drafts from the early modern period survive than we’ve often assumed. And I think that rethinking certain aspects of the early modern period might lead to future archival discoveries on that end.

DP: Speaking of your books, the MacArthur Foundation describes your analysis of the Samuel Ward notebook, currently known as the earliest identified draft of the King James Bible, as a promise “to yield new insights into the translation practices and struggles over the meaning of revelation, history, and faith that informed the creation of the KJB.” What can we expect from this analysis, and what do you most hope to accomplish with it?

JM: What I most hope to accomplish with it is to give people a deepened, more nuanced understanding of the way that the King James Bible, the most widely read work of English writing in the history of the language, came to be … It’s a really important work of literature in English history, religion. It’s exerted a huge influence across the Anglophone world and beyond for centuries, so learning more about how exactly it came to be the way it is, and how the composition of it was approached by the translators, what went into it, what they expected to come out of it — in the largest sense, that’s what the project is meant to do.

It definitely will challenge a certain way that the King James Bible’s composition has tended to be assumed to have been conducted … There’s a lot going into Ward’s translation that helps to recover it [the composition process] in a visceral way because you can sort of see him doing it on the page, working through these issues on the page, and that’s an exciting thing — at least it’s exciting to me!

DP: What is an element of your time at Princeton, academic or otherwise, that you think has particularly been impactful on your life today — something that comes to mind right away? 

JM: Unquestionably, the most impactful thing on my life today was the fact that I met my wife at Princeton. I think I first laid eyes on her, first spoke with her, before even the first week of classes — I think it was around when everyone gets back from OA … I had an enormous crush on her, and she sort of wisely thought better of it for two years, and we then started dating our junior year, and have been together ever since. And now, we have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter together and another daughter coming early next year — so it’s hard to top that in terms of impact on my life.

It’s also the case that a lot of my closest friends to this day were friends of mine at Princeton and have shaped the way I think about things and have proved endlessly inspiring, encouraging. It’s hard to overstate how much I think I have been shaped, intellectually and otherwise, by my wife first and foremost, and then by my other close friends that I made at Princeton.

DP: Do you have any advice for University students who are currently learning to navigate through and make their own place in the scholarly world?

JM: This sounds disingenuous, or something, but when you ask me that question, the first thing that comes to my mind is actually just to take a deep breath and relax. I remember when I was an undergrad … just tying myself into knots about what the next phase in my life would look like and what I was going to do … One of the things I have found to be true of life is that it’s long, in the best of ways — I mean, it goes too quickly … but on the other hand, there are all sorts of things, directions, in which my life has turned, that I never would have anticipated when I was at Princeton … You know, what can even feel like your failures can play a part in your successes, because they’ll end up playing a part in the person you end up becoming, and what you end up doing in the future…

Some things [including the MacArthur Fellowship] that I ended up winning grew out of things that, for a period of time, felt like failures to me. I remember I discovered, identified, Ward’s early draft of the King James Bible after having spent —  I think at the time I had already spent three, [and] it would become four, years — on a single academic essay as a chapter in a scholarly volume of essays …The reason I would’ve told you that my academic work was going poorly was in fact itself paving the way for probably the most important — it’s hard to imagine doing something else, I mean I’ll try — it’s easily going to be the most important thing that I ever do in my scholarship.

So, for students — throw yourself into opportunities, take delight in your peers, faculty or teachers, take joy as much as possible in what you’re working on, even when it’s stressful. But also take some of the pressure off yourself… I know it’s easier said than done, but I think that anytime you’re sort of tempted to tell yourself or to feel that the whole rest of your life is hinging on something that you do at age 20, it’s probably not!

Don’t worry about it. And even actually if you try and fail at something … that is itself not necessarily even a failure — you don’t know to what extent something that feels like a failure is paving the way forward for what will be your greatest achievement … Have some patience, and take heart … Things that feel like failures now may turn out not to be. 

DP: Is there anything else you would like to add, or say to the students at the University?

JM: One thing — the main thing – I have to say is soak it up. It goes quickly! … You’re in a really wonderful place. You have a really wonderful opportunity. Take advantage of it to the extent that you can when you’re there — no one takes advantage of every opportunity Princeton has to offer while being a student — it’s not possible … Make friends. Have relationships. Fall in love. Fall out of love. All these things! If you spend a lot of your time doing that [having fun] — you’re also spending your time well at Princeton.