Interview: Lynn Miller
When I suggest the term to Lynn Miller, he scoffs quietly, a relaxed figure in a plaid shirt, jeans and sneakers, sitting at the opposite end of my living room sofa. When I share with him that I recently told someone that Lynn Miller had to be the scion of an old Philadelphia family, otherwise he could never have written such an insider story; he laughs out loud! One does not think of the Great Plains as producing such literary and social sophistication. However time, travel, and a painter’s eye have certainly done so.
It’s another “only in America” story, that the great-great-grandson of sod-dwelling homesteaders on the Kansas prairie should be a poet, painter, novelist, playwright, Princeton PhD, board member of Philadelphia’s Alliance Française:, member of old Philadelphia’s Athenaeum, and professor emeritus in political science after 31 years at Temple University.
The occasion of our conversation is the publication of Miller’s latest effort, Crossing the Line, a rich multi-layered novel of Philadelphia, old and new. Prompted, he says, by the amazing changes, and amazing refusals of change, which punctuate modern life, Miller has crafted the story of a man who crosses many lines in his quest to make sense of his life. A tale of a modern Everyman, it crosses time, gender, generations, race, politics; and our painful struggles with love, betrayal, forgiveness, and the acceptance of the diversity and connection of all life, both human and in nature.
“Ideas are always the start with me,” he relates. “Attitudes have changed so hugely, and yet some remain so much the same. Race, for instance, is still a source of conflict, despite important progress.”
“A comment from one of my professors at the University of Kansas, back in my undergraduate days, has always lingered in my mind. He said, ‘However important to individuals religion still is, it is no longer of any consequence (in our national life)’ And look – creationism is back!”
“Another idea came from the comment of a friend at a social event. ‘Who would have imagined forty years ago that pot would still be illegal, but same-sex marriage would be gaining more acceptance.’
In Crossing the Line, race, religion, science and homosexuality are all involved with family connections across time and generations, as evoked in letters and diaries, written in both the past and the present. Miller’s protagonist, Owen Gilroy, is newly adjusting to forced retirement from his position at a major city bank and problems in his relationship with his gay partner of many years. He tries to help his grandson come to terms with his sexuality and his dual heritage from his Iraqi father, as fifteen year old Samir discovers that he wants to be a scientist.
Some of their struggles parallel the life of their Nineteenth Century ancestor, Hiram Milhouse, a towering figure in Philadelphia scientific circles, the Academy of Natural Sciences and beyond. (Milhouse’s personal life is completely fictional, but his professional accomplishments are based on the life of Joseph Leidy, who championed Darwin’s views, and whose statue graces the entrance of Academy of Natural Sciences and the cover of Miller’s book.) As reading Milhouse’s diaries and notes fires Sam’s interest in biology, it brings alive Miller’s original idea – so much has changed –human nature has not.
The city itself is a character in this tale. Rittenhouse Square, City Hall, the Union League, Fairmount Park, the lovely old house Owen and Brock remodel will all resonate with anyone who has visited or lived in the City of Brotherly Love. Equally fascinating are the scenes from the fictional Milhouse diaries which depict the Philadelphia of pre and post Civil War years. The city was just being built up to the Academy of Natural Sciences constructed on one of the last green open spaces – no Logan Square fountain yet in sight.
Miller credits his many years of living “in” Philadelphia and teaching at Temple with his ability to craft a story which resonates with authentic present details. Much research and a good deal of creative imagination allowed him to create the fictional letters and diary entries which lead to Owen Gilroy’s discoveries about his own and Sam’s heritage. But his evocation of a suburban cookie-cutter neighborhood, Owen’s lovely back garden, a trip Palm Beach all reveal a painterly eye.
A one-man show in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, several years ago verifies that aspect of his many interests. Miller’s work ranges from traditional riverscapes done from the balcony of his New Hope condominium, to later abstract works dancing with color. And the painting reaches all the way back to Kansas.
“From age four or five I was always drawing. As a kid, reading and drawing were equals.” Reaching a point where becoming a successful painter would require a lifetime of concentration, he put it aside; only resuming when he retired from academic life.
Education began at the University of Kansas where Miller, “Had a wonderful time. My father owned a furniture store in Dodge City, (yes, that Dodge City) but he never encouraged me to follow him. The prairie towns have been emptying out for decades, and we both knew that I would go too.” And it was off to see the world, with a Rotary Fellowship in Geneva where his “French connection” began. Miller recounts that he first saw the ocean from the plane which carried him to Europe.
Why a PhD in Political Science, and not English? Even Miller wonders. “I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, and of course I always wrote in my field. I knew I wanted an academic career, and I guess I thought I might have a better chance in poli sci.”
A look at the titles of the books Miller has written or co-authored, gives, it seems, some clues to the concerns and ideas which have always been his focus – the nature of human relationships, both local and worldwide. These may have worked themselves out most completely in his latest novel.Organizing Mankind (1972), Reflections on the Cold War (1974) Global Order (1985) Global Challenge: Change and Continuity in World Politics (1997), Governing Tomorrow’s Campus (1989) French Philadelphia (2006).
And it seems he was correct about the employment. “Three of us from the same PhD group at Princeton received offers from UCLA, and I spent four exciting years there. It was the Sixties; there were demonstrations and protests. I remember especially the demonstrations when the Board of Regents fired Angela Davis. It was a heady time.”
Return to the East was prompted by his widowed mother and twin sister moving to New York and Boston, “And a job offer from Temple University. After the sunshine, the ocean, the freeways, I concluded: This is a difficult city. It is harder to get around and do things than it was in LA. But over time I found that I settled in, and now I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Dividing his time between center city and New Hope along the Delaware, Miller writes, paints, serves on the board of the Alliance Française; has co-authored a book on French Philadelphia. He gave the annual lecture at the Athenaeum, that bastion of old Philadelphia, several years ago.
I worked with Lynn in a novel workshop which produced Crossing the Line, as well as my own novel, Watching Anna. As we talked, we shared ideas about working with others. Miller and I agreed, “It keeps you going. You feel a responsibility to produce something for the regular meetings.” Our association, over many months, kept both of us from abandoning our projects.
We learned things which may prove helpful to others who may want to try getting together to critique each other’s work. Keep it small. For novels, 4 or 5 is a good size. We often worked with three. “It is an excellent sounding board, and should be taken seriously, but does not dictate one’s decisions. The idea is to listen and then decide for yourself.”
As examples, Miller recounts some of those decisions with Crossing the Line. “The group felt that I had included too much of Hiram’s diaries – that it slowed down the action of the contemporary plot, which is really what carries the story.” He did some trimming, but not as much as the workshop suggested. The whole idea of the diary was to solve the problem of bringing Hiram to life for the reader. We read of abolitionists who hide fleeing slaves, the wedding of Hiram’s minister brother, domestic arrangements in a Nineteenth Century household, laments about the loss of green space.
A biography of the real Nineteenth Century scientist, Joseph Leidy, The Last man Who Knew Everything by Leonard Warren (Yale University Press, 1998) gave Miller the idea for using the diary form; Warren’s book featured many of Leidy’s diary entries. Some of the epigraphs for the chapters in Crossing the Line are actually Leidy’s words. It was amazing to this reader that comments from over 160 years ago can be applied in such interesting ways to our own struggles with religion, creationism, diversity, race, and even sex.
The religious views from this older time were introduced by having Hiram’s brother be a minister, albeit a progressive one. Many ministers were abolitionists, and some were at least willing to entertain Darwin’s ideas. Owen and his grandson explore the same field as their ancestor, biology, and by reviewing sections of Hiram’s defenses of Darwin, allow the reader to consider questions of genetics, evolution, even in our own species.
Bringing to life Jarvis Hare, the orphaned slave who becomes Milhouse’s lifelong assistant and devoted companion, was another matter. Jarvis never actually appears as himself; he is only spoken about by others. That these and other problems were solved is evident in a well-paced and absorbing story of what is essentially a modern family’s coming to terms with its own ancestral connections and its own diversity.
Miller is no stranger to constructing novels. Though this is his first published work, three stories came before this one. “One was set in Kansas, framed by the Viet Nam war. One was a dystopian novel involving nuclear war, and set in the 80’s.The end of the Cold War ended its market potential.” The third is a send-up of academic politics based on real life experiences as a college professor.
And true to his initial billing, our Renaissance Man is connecting himself to the computer age with his newly launched, and self-constructed website. “A friend put me on to a service that teaches you how to set up your own site. Two or three hours of an afternoon and you are all set.”
Miller took his own photos for the cover, scouring Philadelphia neighborhoods to find a house with a center door, matching the house he imagined for the novel. In a tribute to how real Owen Gilroy’s fictional ancestor has become for one reviewer, that person stated that a statue of Hiram Milhouse (!) stands outside the Academy of Natural Sciences.
But as Miller reminds us again in his author’s note, “I have drawn upon the professional life of Joseph Leidy to portray the fictional Hiram Milhouse…Leidy was a giant in science in his day…Milhouse’s private life…(as well as) all of Milhouse’s relatives and descendents are fictitious.”
What does it all mean? Miller allows Hiram the last word in a letter to his nephew Philip, Owen Gilroy’s grandfather. Owen reads the letter at the celebration of the publication of his book about Hiram Milhouse. With his gay partner, his multi-cultural family, and his multi-racial friends looking on, he allows Owen’s scientist ancestor ( and no doubt Lynn Miller) to speak to today’s world of troubled values; to lines crossed and barriers stubbornly maintained:
“To study nature is to learn deep truths about ourselves…All that I have learned out of a lifetime of learning –as I pray you shall too – is simply this: without love we are nothing. Love is everything that makes us want to live.”
M.K. Streznewski is pleased to return as a contributor to Wild River Review. Her previous contributions included profiles of Stanley Kunitz and Donald Hall as well as several essays. Streznewski’s career has included theater, journalism, and teaching of creative writing on levels from high school to senior citizen. She has served as a workshop director at the annual conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild, poetry Editor of the Bucks County Writer, and poetry curator of the Writers Room, a non-profit writer center in Doylestown, PA.
A poet, fiction writer, and author of non-fiction, Streznewski’s most recent appearances have included teaching a poetry class at the Pearl Buck House in Dublin, PA and a dramatic reading of a 13-poem sequence based on her survival of open heart surgery in 2006. Called “Rending the Heart” it was staged as part of the annual Celebration of the Spoken Word by the Medicine Show Theater Company of Manhattan. Streznewski is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Woman Words and Rag Time, which are housed in Poet’s House in New York City. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in national magazines. A non-fiction book, Gifted Grownups, the Mixed Blessing of Extraordinary Potential, appears in libraries world wide. Her short story collection, In the Eye of the Great Staring Moon, and novel, Watching Anna, are making the rounds of editors.