Public Thinker: Nancy K. Miller on Feminist Lives

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“Although I was reluctant to generalize about women’s friendship, I was also thinking about a model that would counter the male model of friendship.”

Nancy K. Miller’s most recent book, My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism (2019), reflects on friendship—especially among women—and loss. It also portrays the professional struggles required to do feminist literary criticism, especially when there were no models for it. In particular, Miller recounts here her relationships with three esteemed critics: Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook.

A Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, Nancy Miller has written criticism on French literature, feminism, and literary theory, as well as a set of memoirs about academic life, parents, and coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s.

This interview took place at the CUNY Graduate Center on October 29, 2019. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Bethie Wang.

Jeffrey J. Williams (JJW): My Brilliant Friends came out at the beginning of this year (2019), and it reflects on friendship, particularly among women. It’s also about the formation of contemporary feminism. How did you come to do the book?


Nancy K. Miller (NKM): It starts with mourning. In 2001, just a few months after September 11, my friend Naomi Schor died, and Carolyn Heilbrun killed herself in 2003. By then, Diane Middlebrook, with whom I was very close, was confronting a cancer that she was not going to survive. Diane died in 2007. By the end of the decade, I was feeling bereft and thinking about what these women had meant to me.

I tried writing a little about each one. But I didn’t feel satisfied, because there was something bigger that I wanted to get at: Why was friendship so important in feminism? I felt that we had lived in a specific historical moment. And although I was reluctant to generalize about women’s friendship, I was also thinking about a model that would counter the male model of friendship.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines what the novel of the future by women will be. One of her concerns is to see what happens between women when men are neither reporting nor in the picture. She creates a scene with two women she names Chloe and Olivia, and has a sentence that has been quoted many times, “Chloe liked Olivia.” But what’s the nature of this liking? She situates Chloe and Olivia in a laboratory, working together, and Woolf claims that because they work together, the friendship will be more durable.

That was key for me, to recognize that all three of my deep relationships were bound up with work, mainly with writing but also with teaching and managing one’s place within the university.


JJW: What was the specific historical moment like?


NKM: In the university in the 1970s, which is when the book’s story begins, departments were mostly dominated by men, who had free rein to manipulate everyone there. Even though the question of sexual harassment had emerged, it had not become something that anyone took seriously.

So it was an atmosphere of constant competition, where we would be played off against each other and did not know who would be the winner. In the end, there was none. That was true for the French department at Columbia, where Naomi and I were assistant professors. But it was similar in English, where Carolyn was unsuccessful in hiring younger feminists, because there was such a massive masculine infrastructure.

For the book, I needed to locate these friendships in that atmosphere, where it was difficult not to succumb to competitive feelings; but at the same time, we wanted to bond together to try to make something different happen. All of these friendships had the feminist component of wanting to support other women, wanting to support feminist work, and trying to shake the hierarchy.

But I don’t think we really succeeded in our own time—although things have changed somewhat, I believe, for younger women. That was the context in the early years of the friendship with Naomi and Carolyn at Columbia; the friendship with Diane was different.


JJW: It happened at a different point in your career.


NKM: Yes. My friendship with Naomi was forged during our apprenticeship years, and Carolyn’s mentorship helped me a lot as I made my way through the profession. Diane and I became friends when we both had turned 60 and had pretty much done whatever we were going to do in terms of academic achievement. That made it a very different moment. We were ready to take chances.


JJW: One thing the book captures is the ambivalence of friendship. You can have an affinity, but like relationships with family, friendships can be fraught.


NKM: It was a constant negotiation. I had already begun working on the book when Elena Ferrante published the tetralogy of My Brilliant Friend, putting at the center the question, Who is the brilliant one? It seemed to me that Ferrante had invented a new paradigm about how women function in the world over time, waltzing between extreme intimacy and violent separation, and back and forth around questions of need.

So I wanted to give a sense in the book of how feelings were inevitably mixed; you could have an intense relationship that would still allow for moments of difficulty. That was the challenge both in life and in writing about it.


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JJW: The book is a memoir about feminism, too. How did you come to feminism?


NKM: I lived most of the 1960s in Paris, in a completely different world, and cut off from the normal trajectory here of graduating from college and then somehow creating an adult life. But in the early 1970s I was living back in New York, almost completely adrift. I belonged to a consciousness-raising group; Naomi was also in the group. It was shocking for all of us to hear each say something along the lines of, “I know I want to do something, but I don’t know what I want to do or whether I can do it.” We had not been brought up with an ambition that we were going to fulfill.

The only thing I knew how to do, because I had lived in Paris, was to teach French. So I taught in a high school for a year when I came back, and I couldn’t bear it. I thought: Well, maybe it would be better to teach “college French” (that was the expression). I’d have to go on to get a PhD, I learned, but still had a pretty narrow idea of what getting a PhD meant.

The shock for me—and for many of us in that moment—was to discover that there were things that we actually did want and could do. For me, that was to write and talk about ideas; for all of us, it was to find a place in the world and change the conditions around us.

It was a great awakening. We were these nice, middle-class girls, and kind of docile. We were awakened by the ’60s. Having sex was the first step, but you still had to do something more than that.


JJW: What was the state of feminist criticism at the time?


NKM: In terms of the institution, in 1968 there was Mary Ellmann’s Thinking about Women, which was more cultural than strictly literary analysis. Ellmann coined the wonderful term “phallic criticism.” Then there was Kate Millett’s bombshell, Sexual Politics, in 1970. But equally radical was the turn to women’s writing. In 1976 Ellen Moers published Literary Women. Elaine Showalter brought out A Literature of Their Own in 1977, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic appeared in 1979.

So, by the end of the ’70s, we really saw something that could be recognized as “feminist literary criticism,” and those of us in literature departments were thrilled to be doing that. There was tremendous excitement and energy about it.

I taught the first course in French women writers at Columbia—that had never been a subject—in 1977. We thought it was so radical that we had our first class in Philosophy Hall with the door closed, and then decided to go to an apartment off campus. I don’t know if you can convey how that felt anymore.


JJW: What did each of you do?


NKM: Carolyn was more interested in real-life women and their biographies, their struggles and the stories they might tell. Whereas Naomi was looking for a theory of identity, and she was attracted to psychoanalytic criticism: to Freud, Lacan, and Derrida.

Carolyn thought I was too enamored with structuralism and the jargon that we adored at the time. She used to quote a line from a poem by Marianne Moore, saying that she wanted to write in English that even cats and dogs could read, instead of for this tiny elite that we were trained to write for.


JJW: So Heilbrun was against the move to theory?


NKM: Yes, she thought it was comical, but she saw that it was very important to me. When we taught together, I was always cast in the role of “theorist,” which I don’t think I ever really was, but in her eyes it was something exotic associated with being in “French.”

JJW: How did you encounter Diane Middlebrook?


NKM: My relationships with Naomi and Carolyn really were entangled with making a career: publishing, getting tenure, getting known. I met Diane at a conference on life writing in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1999. By that time, each of us had done quite a lot of work, and we had questions about our future work, but not of the same nature.

Diane had become famous from her [Anne] Sexton biography (1991), using the tapes from Sexton’s therapist, which was a bold and controversial thing to do. That success marked a divide in her career: she did less academic work and decided to be a biographer full time. When we met, she was finishing Her Husband: A Marriage (2003), a biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and I was writing But Enough about Me (2002) and doing the research that led to What They Saved: Pieces from a Jewish Past (2011).

Diane’s next project, which basically took her to her last breath, was to create a biography of Ovid, taking whatever Ovid had said in the poetry about his life and career—and, notably, his exile—and tracing his journey to becoming a great poet. Becoming an artist was always Diane’s subject. She combined the biographical details from Ovid’s writing with tremendous research about Roman life, Roman gardens, customs, clothing, crafts, and so on. It was a really brilliant and imaginative scholarly exercise.

Work on that book sustained her as her illness got worse and worse. And it certainly made me feel that it would be a good idea not to stop working, even after I was diagnosed with lung cancer (in 2011), because she got such solace from it, even while having hideously debilitating treatments.

That was the complete opposite to Carolyn, who at the end of her life, though well, felt no one cared about what she had to say. She went from having a best-selling book and being invited everywhere to feeling at 77 that nobody cared anymore. That was frightening to me and still is, at 78.


JJW: Yet she was so successful. In a way, your book tells about how all of you came to a profession.


NKM: For all ambitious literary women, there’s a huge effort to get anywhere, to find your vocation, and to put the words into books. I’m not saying male writers don’t struggle, but they don’t struggle over the idea that they, in the order of things, deserve a place. As women, we felt it would be a miracle if we accomplished anything.


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JJW: What were the politics of what you did? They took place primarily within the profession, in literary studies, rather than politics at large.


NKM: I think our battles were political, but it’s true, they had to do with struggles within a field, or within an institution and systems of recognition. There was always a piece of feminism, in women’s studies and women’s centers, that was more activist.

Some criticized academic work as not activist, but I never understood that. Did we march? Yes, we certainly did, but what we were doing was in a very specific sphere.


JJW: I’m curious about the genre of your book. You mentioned Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend as a model about friendship. But your book takes the frame of a group biography, which occurs in several other recent books. For example, there is the one of five abstract expressionist New York painters, Ninth Street Women (2017), by Mary Gabriel, about Krasner, Hartigan, Mitchell, and others; or Deborah Nelson’s book Tough Enough (2017), about Arendt, Weil, McCarthy, and Sontag. There’s also Heilbrun’s earlier book When Men Were the Only Models We Had (2002), about Trilling, Fadiman, and Barzun. You also have short sections about different facets of each person, as Heilbrun does. And interestingly, there’s a genealogy, as Heilbrun was your mentor and you were Nelson’s mentor here at CUNY.


NKM: Carolyn’s writing had more influence on me than I realized at first. She tilted me toward biography in a way that I would have totally disdained when I was in graduate school. Biography was trivial! But I became more attracted to the genre later on.

Deborah Nelson’s book is very strong because she took one idea and pushed it all the way through: the refusal of empathy. (The book was originally called Tough Broads, which I loved, but the publisher made her change it.) That central idea makes the portraits hang together. She also portrayed these writers in a particular historical moment, which made it possible for her to talk about them although they were otherwise very different from one another.


JJW: To see the arc of your work: you started with theory, especially structuralism; moved to talking about memoirs; and finally turned to writing them. Also, in some ways you’ve tried to become an author for a more general literary audience.


NKM: It’s true, but I feel I made the change too late. Carolyn had been doing popular writing her whole life. She wasn’t moving from one kind of audience to another. Diane had written critically about poetry (and was a poet herself) but always took a somewhat biographical approach.

I made the shift belatedly, and it’s hard to know what sounds academic when you’ve been an academic for a long time. After But Enough about Me, which I thought was pretty accessible and open toward a more general audience, a friend said, “I knew all the words you used except for ‘catachresis.’”

So I guess I’ll never be a popular writer. But I can no longer do the straight academic thing.


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JJW: Is there anything you feel you gave up in moving away from criticism?


NKM: When I was writing Breathless (2013), my first memoir, I asked a couple of friends who were novelists to read it. They both said, when I quoted someone or something, “No, you should have a scene here.” I realized for the first time that when you’re a literary critic and want to make a point, you’re going to make it with a great quotation. One has an argumentative temperament as a critic; you’re trying to impose your point of view. But when you’re writing for a general audience, you have to bring readers along more narratively. I still love to quote, however, and catachresis.


JJW: Who is the audience you write for? Sometimes people are suspicious of memoir because they say it’s narcissistic. But when you talk about mourning, it’s something that you are sharing with other people, and that they might also experience. Is it for the consolation of others? To commiserate? To understand life?


NKM: It is an invitation to enter into the world that we’re all going to enter at some point. The audience may feel narrow because my world is an academic world. But looking at women and mourning speaks to a wider audience, despite the limits of this landscape. Ferrante has opened people’s minds to the idea that women’s lives can be interesting and complicated. That’s what I hope I did in my book. icon

Featured image: Nancy Miller (right) speaking about her book My Brilliant Friends at the American Library in Paris in October 2019