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Holding Court: Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller

In this week's edition, we speak with Jennifer Miller, Assistant Professor in the Department of History.  In her most recent book, Cold war Democracy: The United States and Japan, Miller examines the evolution of ideas about democracy during the Cold War by charting the development of the alliance between the United States and Japan from the postwar occupation into the 1960s.

What is your book about?

My book examines the U.S.-Japanese relationship after World War II to consider how a concept that we associate with freedom and liberation—democracy—can simultaneously facilitate liberatory and anti-liberatory outcomes.

Where did you get your idea(s) for this book?

This book was produced over a very long period of time—it started as my masters thesis at the University of Wisconsin, where I earned a MA and PhD in the history of U.S. Foreign Relations. It’s therefore gone through many iterations. The original idea to write about postwar U.S.-Japanese relations came from reading John Dower’s Embracing Defeat about the U.S. occupation of Japan; I wanted to know what happened next and was dissatisfied with the existing literature. But as I did more research and reading, my question changed—I became interested in mid-century understandings of democracy, especially the widespread belief that democracy was a psychological system dependent on a specific “state of mind.” In doing my research in the United States, Japan, and Great Britain, I noticed how often policymakers—both American and Japanese—defined democracy in such terms and I became curious about the consequences; what policy outcomes did this enable and what did it prevent?

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

The core of my research involves reading large amounts of historical documents. For my book, I read thousands upon thousands of pages of government and non-government documents at various archives and pieced them together to formulate a larger historical narrative and argument. While historians used to take notes or make copies at the archives, now our research is more digital; we take photographs of the documents and time at the archives is often a mad dash to gather as much material as possible. I then convert the photographs to PDF’s, read them and take notes—this is the most generative portion of my research process and it’s where I get my main ideas and develop my arguments. I have a very set system for how I do my writing. I read through my notes and compose a massive outline (often over 100 pages) for each book chapter that includes every piece of evidence or quote that I plan to use. For my first draft, I write up the outline—I find a blank page very intimidating and knowing that I have the outline to work from is extremely helpful for me—and then I edit, edit, edit, and edit more. So I suppose a camera is perhaps the most useful tool, though my archival trips are also fueled by a prodigious amount of coffee and I rely heavily on my cats’ company while writing.

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

I hope the library of the future doesn’t look that different from the library of the present! To me, an ideal library has lots of books, open and accessible stacks, excellent and helpful librarians, exciting educational and scholarly programming, and access to coffee. While digital resources can offer unprecedented access to new scholarship and historical materials and are thus important investments for all libraries, I always check out the physical book when I can. So books…lots of books!

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

Develop your own system and stick to it. There is all sorts of advice out there about how to write and how to produce. What’s important, I think, is to identify your big writing obstacles and then find ways to make them surmountable. Read widely, and read outside your area of expertise, because sometimes that is where the best ideas come from. Remember that your reader is not inside your head, so your goal as a writer is the make your assumptions clear on the page. The hardest part of writing, for me, is remembering what is not obvious to my reader when I’ve been working on a topic for years.

And finally, what do you read for fun? 

In the past few years, I’ve recommitted myself to reading fiction in the service of my own mental health and creativity, and I try to get in some non-work reading every day. There are so many good books coming out – a few I’ve enjoyed recently are Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which is a marvelous and compelling multigenerational story; Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which is so wonderful on the dynamics of academia and the mundane joys and difficulties of parenting; Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, which took an unexpected and surprising turn at the end; and Weike Wang’s Chemistry: A Novel, which has an amazing sense of pattern and voice. I also love mysteries and detective stories, so I have read all of Tana French’s work. My favorite book, however, is probably Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and I reread it almost every year. I don’t have a systematic way that I pick what I read; because I often take my children to Hanover’s Howe Library, I always make a point of perusing their excellent new books section and grab whatever looks interesting. Next on my list is finishing Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

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