When Andrew Miller was writing a book about the desire of literary characters to become someone new by imitating an exemplary figure, he found himself dogged by another question: What if I had been someone else?
“It was a period in my life when a number of very important events had happened,” says the professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of English. “I had gotten tenure. I had married. Our first child, Sophia, had died shortly after she was born. Then we had two more children, Cass and Ben.
“I realized all of these events meant I had started down a long path—marriage ‘til death do us part,’ working as a professor until retirement, parenting.
Miller knew that these sentiments were present in works by Henry James and Virginia Woolf, but the more he thought about it, the more he saw such preoccupations in many other novels, poems, and films.
He finished the book he was working on—The Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in Nineteenth-Century Literature, which came out in 2008—and began a new project. The result is On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, just published by the Harvard University Press.
Though James and Woolf set Miller on this particular path, he picked as his foundational text the Robert Frost poem “Two Roads Diverged in the Woods.”
“Frost was inescapable,” Miller says. “It is both a text that readers will know well, but also one that is a lot more interesting than a lot of readers think. It is also a very economical way of providing the structure of the book—the two paths, the looking back, the comparing of two options.”
Miller then moves on to James and Woolf. In the short story “The Jolly Corner,” James’ main character Spencer Bryden has, like James, left his native New York for life in London. When he returns to his boyhood home, he encounters a ghost who is essentially the person he might have been had he stayed, had he opened “the unopened letter of his unlived life” instead of throwing it into the fireplace still sealed.
In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf tells of one day in the life of the title character as she prepares for and then gives a dinner party, all the while contemplating the choices she has made in her life, particularly in her marriage and other relationships—mostly with people at the dinner—and how it all might have been different.
It was a time that made me wonder, ‘If only this or that had happened differently, I would have been someone else.'”
Woolf, herself, “really lived this story,” Miller says. “In her diaries, her short stories, her novels, in the way she experienced much of her life with her sister, with other writers, you see her constantly comparing who she was to who others were, who she was to who she might have been.”
Miller goes from there to many different works, with particular focus on Carl Dennis’ poem “The God Who Loves You,” Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life, and Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement.
Along the way, he writes of his own life, musing about what was and what might have been, of watching children grow and make choices not realizing that they are taking irreversible paths as surely as Frost’s character was in that yellow wood.
“I don’t pretend that the book is exhaustive,” Miller says. “It is the reverse of that. I wanted to write it in such a way that readers are encouraged to think of their own examples.”
And you do: in Jay Gatsby if Daisy had loved him years before; Charles Foster Kane if he had kept taking Rosebud down that snow-covered hill; Willy Loman if he had gone with his brother to Alaska; Private Ryan if he was the one under that tombstone in the Normandy cemetery.
Indeed, once Miller makes you aware of this theme, it seems so basic as to be almost ubiquitous.
“That’s what I liked about the challenge of this book,” he says. “I was trying to write about a topic that both seemed obvious, perhaps too obvious to say anything about, but also, at same time, deeper than I had words to describe.
“My hope for this book is that people will feel the value of reading closely, not just texts, but the world around them, discovering again that it contains more than they had thought.”