Allegheny College English Professor Receives Prestigious American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship

Allegheny College Assistant Professor of English John MacNeill Miller has been named a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) for the fall of 2021.

Miller said he will use the fellowship semester to complete his book, On Background: Scenery, Ecology, and the Social Novel, which focuses on the entangled intellectual histories of ecology, economics, and the English novel. This literary history seeks to explain why novelists tend to treat human beings as characters while relegating the nonhuman world to the status of mere setting, Miller said.

John MacNeill Miller, assistant professor of English at Allegheny College.
John MacNeill Miller, assistant professor of English at Allegheny College.

“My book argues that ecological science, economics, and the Victorian novel — three modes of writing and thinking that seem very distinct — share a common origin. They can all be traced back to the intellectual exchanges between the political economist Thomas Robert Malthus, the novelist Harriet Martineau, and the naturalist Charles Darwin in the early 1800s,” said Miller.

Miller said he is particularly focused on the ways that these three figures used narrative storytelling to explore how communities of humans, plants, and animals depend on each other. The book starts by showing how these distinct ways of writing and thinking emerged from the same intellectual tradition, said Miller. It then examines how and why these fields broke apart, he added.

The book pays special attention to how practitioners in each emerging field used the literary categories of character and setting differently, producing very distinct ideas of who counted in a community — and of what moral duties community members owe to one another, said Miller. Portions of the book already have appeared in article form in scholarly journals, “but the ACLS Fellowship will give me the time I need to revise, expand, and combine them into a full book manuscript. I expect to finish the book by the end of the fellowship term, sending the manuscript out to potential publishers at the beginning of next year,” he said.

The American Council of Learned Societies is considered the preeminent representative of American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences. The fellowship program supports outstanding scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences with the potential to make significant contributions to knowledge within and across fields. In the latest round of funding, fellowships totaling nearly $3.6 million were awarded to 60 scholars selected from nearly 1,300 applicants. Fellowship awards provide $30,000 to $60,000 to support scholars during six to 12 months of research leave.

“I personally know so many smart, talented, and deserving people who fit the fellowship’s criteria that I didn’t think I had any chance of making the final cut. So when the ACLS notified me that I’d been selected for one of this year’s fellowships, I was shocked, honored, and deeply grateful,” said Miller. “As grateful as I am to receive such an award, I am equally grateful to have the full support of my department and of the Allegheny administration to take this leave to pursue my research and writing. I was lucky to win the fellowship, but I’m also very lucky to be at an institution that understands the value of humanities scholarship as part of the liberal arts tradition.”