Perry Miller

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Perry Gilbert Eddy Miller (February 25, 1905 – December 9, 1963) was an American intellectual historian and a co-founder of the field of American Studies.[1] Miller specialized in the history of early America, and took an active role in a revisionist view of the colonial Puritan theocracy that was cultivated at Harvard University beginning in the 1920s. Heavy drinking led to his premature death at the age of fifty-eight.[2] "Perry Miller was a great historian of Puritanism but the dark conflicts of the Puritan mind eroded his own mental stability."[3]


Miller was born in 1905 Chicago, Illinois to Eben Perry Sturges Miller, M.D., from Mansfield, Ohio, and Sarah Gertrude Miller née Eddy, from Bellows Falls, Vermont.[4] Eben Perry Sturges Miller appeared in 1895 and 1898 deacon's candidacy lists for Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.[5] Eben Perry Sturges received an 1898 "notice of discipline" for "abandonment or forfeiture of the Holy Orders" and "deposition" from the ministry, seven years before the birth of his son.[6] The late nineteenth-century Episcopal Church of Illinois issued "notices of discipline" for cases of "moral delinquency," "doctrinal errors," and/or "sickness and infirmity."[7]

Perry Miller earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago and began teaching at Harvard University in 1931. In 1942, Miller resigned his post at Harvard to join the United States Army; he was stationed in Great Britain for the duration of the war, where he worked for the Office of Strategic Services. Miller may have been instrumental in creating the Psychological Warfare Branch of the O.S.S.; certainly he worked for the PWB for the duration of the war.[8] After 1945, Miller returned to teaching at Harvard. He also offered courses at the Harvard Extension School.[9]

Miller wrote book reviews and articles in The Nation and The American Scholar. In his long-awaited biography of Jonathan Edwards, published in 1949, Miller argues that Edwards was actually an artist working in the only medium available to him in the 18th century American frontier, namely that of religion and theology. His posthumously published The Life of the Mind in America, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, was the first installment of a projected 10-volume series.[10] Miller spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey on a Guggenheim Fellowship and also taught in Japan for a year.

In 1987, Edmund S. Morgan claimed that Miller, his undergraduate tutor and graduate dissertation advisor, was an atheist, like himself.[11]

Death from alcoholism[edit]

He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts of acute pancreatitis stemming from his longstanding alcohol use disorder.[12] By some, especially within the Harvard community, his death was mourned as a loss to America's intellectual landscape.[13]


Hollinger (1968) explores the philosophical basis of Miller's historiography, arguing that Miller's formulation of problems was controlled by tensions between 'conscious' and 'mechanical' and between 'understanding' and 'mystery.' For Miller, the mechanical world was devoid of morality and purpose, and was incompatible with conscious beauty and ethics. By contrast, within the 'conscious' realm the drive for knowledge about an intelligible universe controlled by laws vied with the opposite religious faith in an unknowable universe controlled by God. Miller's history was further deepened by his emphasis on development: he sees history as proceeding in a continuing series of interactions between traditional cultural forms and immediate environmental circumstances. For Miller, culture is never merely the product of the environment, but an active agent in the interaction. The search for 'historical knowledge' itself proceeds on the terms of this interaction. Miller rejected both positivism and the relativism of Carl Becker for the harder relativism later developed by Thomas Kuhn. That is, for Miller 'forms' are neither wholly arbitrary nor entirely discovered in 'the facts,' but are instead the inheritance and creation of the historian, altered and confirmed by his experience.[14]


Miller's attempts to discover and to reveal the religious feelings and the religious ideas set a new standard for intellectual historiography.[15] Historians report that Miller's work has influenced the work of later historians on topics ranging from Puritan studies to discussions of narrative theory. In his most famous book, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939), Miller adopted a cultural approach to illuminate the worldview of the Puritans, unlike previous historians who employed psychological and economic explanations of their beliefs and behavior.[16]


At Harvard, he directed numerous Ph.D. dissertations. His most notable student was fellow Pulitzer winner Edmund Morgan, although Bernard Bailyn cited him as an influence, albeit a fractious one.[17]

Margaret Atwood dedicated The Handmaid's Tale to Perry Miller. Atwood had studied with Miller while attending Radcliffe before women were admitted to Harvard.[18][19]


  • 1933. Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650[20]
  • 1939. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century [21]
  • 1949. Jonathan Edwards[22]
  • 1950. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology[23]
  • 1953. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province[24]
  • 1953. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition[25]
  • 1954. Religion and Freedom of Thought
  • 1954. American Thought: Civil War to World War I[26]
  • 1956. Errand into the Wilderness[27]
  • 1956. The American Puritans (editor) [28]
  • 1957. The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry[29]
  • 1957. The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville and the New York Literary Scene[30]
  • 1958. Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau's Hitherto “Lost Journal”
  • 1961. The Legal Mind in America: From Independence to the Civil War
  • 1965. Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War [31]
  • 1967. Nature's Nation[32]


  1. ^ Murray G. Murphey, "Perry Miller and American Studies," American Studies Summer 2001, Vol. 42 Issue 2, pp 5-18
  2. ^ David Levin, Exemplary Elders (Athens GA, 1990) p. 36
  3. ^ Niel Gunson, Telling Pacific lives: prisms of process (2008) p 8,14, ISBN 9781921313813
  4. ^ Marquis, Albert Nelson (1926). Who's Who in Chicago: Volume 404. Chicago, IL: A.N. Marquis & Company. p. 606.
  5. ^ Journal of the Proceedings of the Protestant Episcopal Church Diocese of Western Michigan Twenty-First Annual Convention. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Stanton Printing Company. 1898. p. 97.
  6. ^ Journal of Proceedings of the Twenty-Six Annual Convention of the Diocese of Western Michigan. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Powers-Tyson Printing Company. 1900. p. 80.
  7. ^ Journal of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Illinois. Chicago, IL: Printed for the Convention. 1861. p. 52.
  8. ^ Middlekauff, "Perry Miller," pp 168-9
  9. ^ Shinagel, Michael (2010), The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910–2009, Harvard University Press, p. 52, ISBN 978-0674051355
  10. ^ Kelly Boyd, Encyclopedia of historians and historical writing: Volume 2 (1999) p. 818
  11. ^ Courtwright, David T. (1987). "Fifty Years of American History: An Interview with Edmund S. Morgan". The William and Mary Quarterly. 44 (2): 336–369. doi:10.2307/1939669. ISSN 0043-5597.
  12. ^ "...doctors had warned him several years earlier that alcohol gravely threatened his life..." Levin, Exemplary Elders, p.36
  13. ^ Alan Heimert, "Perry Miller: An Appreciation," Harvard Review, II, no. 2 (Winter-Spring 1964), 30-48
  14. ^ David A. Hollinger, "Perry Miller and Philosophical History," History and Theory, May 1968, Vol. 7 Issue 2, pp 189-202
  15. ^ Stanford J. Searl Jr., "Perry Miller As Artist: Piety and Imagination in the New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century," Early American Literature, Dec 1977, Vol. 12 Issue 3, pp 221-33
  16. ^ Robert Middlekauff, "Perry Miller," in Marcus Cunliffe and Robin W. Winks, eds., Pastmasters pp 167-90
  17. ^ Perry Miller, Errand into the wilderness (1956) Page ix
  18. ^ PEARY, GERALD (1990-03-04). "'The Handmaid's Tale' : If Puritans Ruled . . . Atwood's Story on Screen". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2016-03-25.
  19. ^ "Book Review". Retrieved 2016-03-25.
  20. ^ Perry Miller (1933-01-01). Orthodoxy in massachusetts 1630 1950. Beacon Press.
  21. ^ "The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century - 1954, Page iii by Perry Miller,a".[dead link]
  22. ^ Miller, Perry (2005-01-01). Jonathan Edwards. U of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803283075.
  23. ^ Miller, Perry (1950-01-01). The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674903333.
  24. ^ Perry Miller (1953-01-01). The New England Mind From Colony To Province. Beacon Press.
  25. ^ Miller, Perry (1970-01-01). Roger Williams: his contribution to the American tradition. Atheneum.
  26. ^ Miller, Perry (1954-01-01). American thought: Civil War to World War I. Rinehart. ISBN 9780030091759.
  27. ^ "Errand into the Wilderness — Perry Miller - Harvard University Press". Retrieved 2016-03-25.
  28. ^ "The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry - 1956, Page iii". Archived from the original on 2008-02-29. Retrieved 2017-09-08.
  29. ^ Miller, Perry (1957-01-01). The American transcendentalists, their prose and poetry. Doubleday.
  30. ^ "Perry Miller: The Raven and the Whale". Retrieved 2016-03-25.
  31. ^ Miller, Perry (1965-01-01). The life of the mind in America: from the Revolution to the Civil War : books one through three.
  32. ^ Miller, Perry (1967-01-01). Nature's nation. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674605503.


  • Butts, Francis T. "The Myth of Perry Miller," American Historical Review, June 1982, Vol. 87 Issue 3, pp 665–94; Seeks to rehabilitate Miller's interpretation of Puritanism
  • Fuller, Randall. "Errand into the Wilderness: Perry Miller as American Scholar," American Literary History, Spring 2006, Vol. 18 Issue 1, pp 102–128
  • Guyatt, Nicholas. "'An Instrument of National Policy': Perry Miller and the Cold War," Journal of American Studies, April 2002, Vol. 36 Issue 1, pp 107–49
  • Hollinger, David A. "Perry Miller and Philosophical History," History and Theory, Vol. 7, issue 2, 1968, 189-202
  • Heimert, Alan. "Perry Miller: An Appreciation," Harvard Review, II, no. 2 (Winter-Spring 1964), 30-48
  • Middlekauff, Robert. "Perry Miller," in Marcus Cunliffe and Robin W. Winks, eds., Pastmasters (1969) pp 167–90
  • Reinitz, Richard. "Perry Miller and Recent American Historiography," Bulletin of the British Association of American Studies, 8 (June 1964), 27-35
  • Searl Jr., Stanford J. "Perry Miller As Artist: Piety and Imagination in the New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century," Early American Literature, Dec 1977, Vol. 12 Issue 3, pp 221–33
  • Tucker, Bruce. "Early American Intellectual History after Perry Miller," Canadian Review of American Studies, 1982, Vol. 13 Issue 2, pp 145–157