Steven Millhauser


By Dr. Russell A. Potter


Originally written for the English Wikipedia in 2006; some parts of this entry may still survive there, and are here licensed under GFDL



Steven Millhauser is perhaps one of modern American fiction's most elusive characters. When his novel, Martin Dressler, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1997, Millhauser told an interviewer that it would not change his life one bit - "I dare it to," he was quoted as saying. The prize brought many of his older books back into print. As the patina of the prize faded however, they slowly retreated from the shelves and back into the hands of the small but devoted following he has always enjoyed.


Although Millhauser was born in 1943 in New York City, he grew up in Connecticut. He received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1965, and went on to pursue a doctorate in English at Brown University. He never completed his dissertation, but did complete a large, rambling novel -- eventually published in a pared-down form under the title From the Realm of Morpheus -- as well as Edwin Mullhouse.


Until the Pulitzer, Millhauser was best known for Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (Knopf, 1972). This remarkable novel, in which the fictional Cartwright plays Boswell to Edwin's Johnson, a writer whose career ends abruptly with his death at the tender age of 11, brought wide critical acclaim. Millhauser continued to ply his craft, following Edwin Mullhouse with Portrait of a Romantic (1977), and his first collection of short stories, In The Penny Arcade, in 1986. It was for his stories that Millhauser has become most admired; immaculately written, curiously vivid, they trod on fantastic boards in a manner reminiscent of Poe or Borges, but with a distinctively American voice. In them, mechanical cowboys at penny arcades come to life; curious amusement parks, museums, or catacombs beckon with secret passageways and walking automata; dreamers dream and children fly out their windows at night on magic carpets.


Millhauser's collections continued with The Barnum Museum (1990), Little Kingdoms (1993), and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998). The unexpected success of Martin Dressler in 1997 brought Millhauser to the attention of a new generation of readers. In 2006, the film The Illusionist, based on Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist", was released. It was directed by Neil Burger and stars Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton; while it adds a new plot-line, the episodes representing Eisenheim's illusions are faithfully represented.


Steven Millhauser lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, and teaches at Skidmore College.