Jeffrey Alan Miller, Literary Scholar | 2019 MacArthur Fellow

One of the things I’m interested in as a
scholar is the way that different forms of manuscripts that survived in archives
could have played a role in the writing or composition process for many of the
most important works that survive today. My name is Jeffrey Alan Miller, and I’m
a literary scholar. The early modern period, or Renaissance, in England, and more broadly, was a time when people were really starting to question or rethink
just about everything. Should we have a monarchy at all? What should our church
look like? Should we have a national church or not? What sorts of beliefs
should we tolerate or not? John Milton was really at the heart of almost every one of those debates. In any kind of historical transformation, whether it’s personal or cultural, you have a kind of intertwined cord of events running
through it. And one of the things I’m trying to show in my work is that the
writing process itself was a part of that, and that Milton was changing his
mind about things, sometimes even discovering what he believed in general
about an issue, through the process of writing about it. So the King James Bible,
first published in 1611, is the most enduring English translation of the
Bible, and in fact the most widely read work in English writing of all time. It
has exerted a huge influence for centuries on almost every aspect of
history, culture, religion, and even the English language itself. So what I
identified was an early, seemingly first, draft of part of the King James
translation in the hand of a man named Samuel Ward, who was one of the known
translators of the King James Bible. It provides the first concrete evidence
that at least one of the teams approached their work by assigning
individual books, or parts of biblical books, to individual translators, rather
than working on the translation entirely as a group throughout the process, which
is historically how the King James Bible was assumed to have been composed.
Another thing I’ve learned about the King James Bible, in the process of
studying Ward’s draft, is that the translation process was a lot messier
than prior studies had often suggested. You see in Ward’s draft, it’s a lot of
wrestling with the meaning of the text, different possible ways it could be
approached. And as an English professor one of the things I suppose
I’m especially interested in and inspired by is the notion that from,
again, the lowest echelons of society on up, one of the ways that people seem to
have recurrently believed that they could shape the world, that they could
meaningfully engage with it, that they could turn it into a better place than
what it had been, was through the process of writing about it.

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