Authors: Isabel Miller

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Identity: Gay or bisexual

Author Works

Long Fiction:

A Gradual Joy, 1953 (as Alma Routsong)

Round Shape, 1959 (as Routsong)

A Place for Us, 1969 (reissued as Patience and Sarah, 1972)

The Love of Good Women, 1986

Side by Side, 1990

Laurel, 1996

Short Fiction:

A Dooryard Full of Flowers, and Other Short Pieces, 1993

Biography

Isabel Miller was born Alma Routsong, the daughter of a policeman and a nurse. She grew up in Michigan, attended Western Michigan University, and worked as a cherry picker, waitress, and lumber hauler before joining the WAVES (the women’s volunteer section of the Navy, established during World War II) as a Navy hospital apprentice in 1945. In 1947, she married Bruce Brodie; they had four daughters. Miller completed a degree in art from Michigan State University in 1949. She had “a gift for drawing faces,” she later said.{$I[AN]9810001745}{$I[A]Miller, Isabel}{$S[A]Routsong, Alma;Miller, Isabel}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Miller, Isabel}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Miller, Isabel}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Miller, Isabel}{$I[tim]1924;Miller, Isabel}

During the 1950’s, Miller published two novels under her birth name. While A Gradual Joy and Round Shape are stories of heterosexual marriages and may be of little interest to Miller’s current audience, they share some literary qualities with her later work. These qualities include the choices of ordinary people and their relationships–examined with tenderness but without sentimentality–as worthy subjects of fiction, emphasis on characterization rather than plot, and the simple, graceful cadences of the author’s sentences.

Then Miller made a major change in her life and her writing. Acknowledging her lesbianism, she left her husband and moved to Washington, D.C., with her lover. An incident of government employment discrimination caused them to move to New York in 1963 (the short story “Strangers in Camelot” presents a fictionalization of this episode). There Miller worked as an editor at the Columbia University publications office and later as a proofreader and copy editor at Time magazine. She became active in the fledgling Gay Liberation movement, adopted her present pseudonym–Miller was her mother’s birth name, and Isabel is an anagram for “lesbia”–and began work on her landmark novel, A Place for Us.

Set in 1816, inspired by the lives of American folk painter Mary Ann Willson and her romantic companion, Miss Brundidge, A Place for Us is the love story of Patience White and Sarah Dowling. With no models for their relationship, the two women nevertheless accept its goodness, leave their families, and establish a frontier home together in upstate New York. One paints; the other farms. The lovers alternate as the novel’s narrators.

Following several rejections, Miller printed the volume at her own expense in 1969 and sold a thousand copies from a shopping bag. In 1971 A Place for Us won the first Gay Book Award from the Gay Task Force of the American Library Association. One buyer of the private edition convinced a major publisher to reissue the work, and in 1972, as Patience and Sarah, it reached a wide audience. Reviewers praised the novel’s effective characterizations, whimsical charm, and unity of subject and treatment. Lesbians found the combination of high literary quality, calm and positive acceptance of lesbian lifestyles, and re-imagining of a lesbian past a revelation.

Miller’s next novel, The Love of Good Women, depicts the life changes experienced by two sisters-in-law during World War II. Gertrude starts work in a factory, leaves her abusive husband, and embarks on a more compatible marriage. Milly ends her marriage to honor the significance of her lesbian relationship. The publication of this novel marked the beginning of Miller’s association with Naiad Press, an independent lesbian publisher.

Side by Side could be called a re-creation of Patience and Sarah in the baby-boomer generation. As in the previous novel, partners in a relationship alternate as narrators. Sharon and Patricia meet as children, become lovers in adolescence, then are separated by their parents in ways that reflect their different class origins. Reunited in New York City, they participate in the early stirrings of the Gay Liberation movement, then move to a farm upstate. Side by Side’s delicate imagery recalls A Place for Us; it also contains humorous references to the earlier work. One significant difference is the presence in Side by Side of a lesbian community.

A Dooryard Full of Flowers, and Other Short Pieces includes several short stories, many of them originally intended to be novels, and four poems. The title story continues Patience and Sarah. Two of the stories were originally published in The Ladder, a lesbian magazine that existed between the 1950’s and 1970’s. Reflecting their origins, some stories lack a sense of completion, while others are moving, fully realized depictions of lesbian life in different decades.

The publication of A Place for Us (particularly as Patience and Sarah in 1972) was widely recognized as an important event. The book received warm reviews in newspapers around the United States and remains Miller’s best-known novel. Critical response to her later work has been more limited. One reason may be that the subjects Miller treats appear more widely in fiction since 1960 (a condition she helped to create); another may be that some readers mistake her work’s deliberate accessibility and folkloric qualities for lack of artistry. About the response to her work, Miller said, “Some people tell me, ‘I laughed, I cried, but I don’t think it’s a good book.’ They don’t realize that if it weren’t a good book, they wouldn’t do that.”

In the 1990’s, Miller worked in her home in upstate New York. Of her work and her audience, she said,

I write for other lesbians, especially lesbians who are isolated or who need some encouragement to feel good about themselves. Once a young woman in Michigan told me, “I know love exists because it’s in my heart, and it’s in your books.” I’m writing for her.

She died in 1996 at the age of seventy-two and a month before the publication of her final novel, Laurel. Her contribution to lesbian literature is huge; Patience and Sarah is mandatory reading in the field. It also was the basis for a successful opera of the same title by Wende Persons.

BibliographyKatz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. Rev. ed. New York: Meridian, 1992. Contains an interview with Miller. Includes an index and a bibliography.Pollack, Sandra, and Denise D. Knight, eds. Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. This valuable reference book comprises one hundred articles on lesbian writers from various genres. A chapter is devoted to Miller and includes personal history, overview of her major themes, and her place in literary history. Includes bibliographical references and index.Zimmerman, Bonnie. The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-1989. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990. Discusses A Place for Us as a “green world romance,” a love story that rewrote the conventions of love stories. Includes bibliographical references and index.
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