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Happy Puritan

Faculty Profile

By John G. Wofford

From the lettuce fields of California to the steaming Congo of Africa may seem an unusual route to professorship of American Literature at Harvard, but for Perry Gilbert eddy Miller, these are just two ordinary contrasts in a most extraordinary career. One-time hobo, actor, and liberator of Paris, Miller is now a genial and unorthodox expert on the puritan orthodoxy in America, a man who follows Ted Williams' batting averages almost as closely as he scrutinizes Jonathan Edwards' theology.

A major crisis in Miller's life that accounts for many of the contrasts in his personality occurred in dizzy, post-war Chicago of 1922. Surrounded by veterans boating of their European exploits, the seventeen year old freshman at the University of Chicago "felt cheated and born too late. I had missed the war, and I guess I had a kind of blow-up in the spring, so I took to the road. I left home, and when I got back in 1926, I still had ten dollars."

Broadway and Lettuce Fields

Miller lived fully for those four years. He "kicked around some out West," managed to get himself jailed for vagrancy, worked in lettuce fields, and even acted in Broadway productions of Walter Hampden (Cyrano) and Sothern and Marlowe's Shakespeare troupe. At times, his ten dollars dwindled low, but at other times he made money-lots of money-writing for cheap magazines. "I had a perfect formula that worked while I stuck with it," he gleefully relates. "I used to go to the New York Library and read the cheap stories of 1900. Then I would rewrite them-adding more sex and putting automobiles in place of carriages. But I got bored with such stuff, and the formula failed me."

When plagiarizing failed to please, Miller found a job on a tramp freighter headed for the west coast of Africa. He went up the Congo and into the darkness with a heart more interested in adventure than introspection, but after ferrying oil drums up and down for a while, he suddenly realized what he ought to be doing. "I had a vision in the solitude of the Congo," he explains. "The idea of studying American civilization dawned on me, for I saw what America Meant in the world-power. That power needed expounding."

These unpuritanical beginnings have made Miller's later study of Puritanism appear more a matter of scholarship than character. As he laughingly explains, "The Puritans wouldn't approve of the life I led then, and I'm sure they wouldn't approve of the life I'm leading now. The fact that I like a cocktail before dinner doesn't make me respect Jonathan Edwards any less. I can respect him without accepting his theology, can't I?

Miller's interest in Puritanism began largely by accident. As he says, he had been "too busy living to do much reading" on his journeys, but back at Chicago the scholarly Odysseus struck out of an experimental study of America history, literature, and philosophy. "I wanted to start at the beginning," he says, "and I didn't get any further for a long time." It is no wonder that he is just now getting to his chief interest-the nineteenth century-for he spent years reading every available Puritan sermon.

Ph.D. Union Cards

Miller does not always preach what he practices, for such outstanding scholarship-which brought him to Harvard in 1931-is not what he recommends to graduate students. Speaking of theses as "mere Ph.D. union cards," he urges his students to "get the thing over with in a hurry." Yet graduate researchers confess that anyone who tries to study that way under Miller is bound to run into trouble. For easy-talking Miller cannot tolerate haphazard scholarship.

Miller, in his green checked jacket and yellow necktie, has also freed theology from its traditional dullness. On a wager with Professor harry Levin in the late 1940's, Miller began and undergraduate course on Christian theologians. He and his class discuss men from Augustine to Kicrkegard, but hardly in the usual way. To illustrate the meaning of the essence of God, Miller drew not on books but on baseball, and to show relative good and evil, the red Sox and the yankees were his illustrations.

But the professor is more than a liberator of literature and theology; he also "liberated" Paris and Strasbourg in World War H. In combat psychological warfare, Miller had to advance to crucial points in the front lines and answer German bullets with broadcasts asking the enemy to surrender. He proudly relates that on August 25, 1944. "I liberated Paris. I was the second person into the city, right behind General Leclere. It was a wonderful day--fighting and drinking and reveling in the streets. You would shoot at Germans and then step back into a doorway and kiss a pretty girl. Men were dying all around me covered with lip rouge all over their faces from so much kissing."

Beneath Miller's jovial tone, it is not difficult to sense the horror that he saw in the war. When he was in Japan in 1952 for a summer seminar, he recalls the "moving and pathetic" there days at Hiroshima. "It was hard explaining," he recalls, "why you take their guns and ships and tanks away and then five years later you urge them to rearm. It just seemed inconsistent." Perhaps he was thinking of this paradox when he later wrote for The Atlantic: ". . . vast segments of our people are . . . devouring treatises on peace of mind, when everbody knows there is no peace."

Jovial, yet profoundly serious, Perry Miller is a man of contrasts. Still the actor--he is narrating a program on WGBH; still the wanderer--he was at the Institute of Advance Study at Princeton last year, where he met and admired Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer; still the liberator and still the scholar, the tall, white-haired, intense professor, is more than anything else, a happy Puritan.

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