Obituary: Dougald McMillan
Tuesday 23 November 1999
An inheritance of heavily forested land in Arkansas enabled him to live well, but he squandered much of that inheritance on hare-brained projects. Much of his best work is still unpublished, due to the circumstances of a marriage that broke down, and his reluctance to deal with the problems that emerged from it.
He was the star pupil of Richard Ellmann when at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he took his PhD. Ellmann infused in him a love of scholarship and a grounding in the work of James Joyce; McMillan became a regular attender at the bi- annual Joyce seminars which alternate in the towns where Joyce lived, and by extension became interested in the work of Samuel Beckett, which led to many scholarly studies, among the most literate and readable of the great body of Beckett secondary literature now available.
He became a Professor at the University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina, where his enthusiasm and the special attention he gave to students, including foreign ones who had difficulties with language and English literary culture, made him extremely popular, with overflowing classes. He taught there for 25 years, specialising in modern drama, particularly Beckett. He contributed widely to academic journals and published a lucid history of Transition, the Paris pre-war magazine which serialised Finnegans Wake in its entirety when no publisher would touch it. Transition: the history of a literary era appeared in 1975.
McMillan was a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Sarajevo in 1971- 72 and spent an increasing amount of time in Europe. Together with Martha Fehsenfeld, who did much of the research for him, he embarked on an important study, Beckett in the Theatre, which investigated the sources of Beckett's thinking and influences, and threw new light on the plays, especially as to how they should be performed. While they were working on the manuscript at Chapel Hill, an electric storm threw the house into darkness and that, combined with there being a celebration of Fahsenfeld's birthday that evening, was the cause of the book being divided into two parts, of which only the first appeared in 1978. It became a much-used guide to the plays.
Shortly afterwards, McMillan's wife, who had joined a fundamentalist religious sect, left him, taking with her all the software, including the rest of the Beckett manuscript that covered the later plays, as well as another commissioned and completed book on which McMillan had spent a year in Edinburgh. This was an authorised biography of Hugh MacDiarmid, the leader of the Scottish literary revival. The biography was co-authored by MacDiarmid's son, who had little idea of much of the scandalous information that McMillan had discovered through dozens of interviews and by close surveillance of the texts and translation.
During his sabbatical in Edinburgh, McMillan became much a part of the city's literary life. But on his return home he increasingly involved himself in other activities, usually outside his competence. He started a restaurant in an old railway wagon. It was never successful, but he kept it going for many years. He started a local publishing company that brought out books on local issues and he took on extreme right-wing political books, not out of any sympathy with their contents, but because he believed that there were so many right-wing fanatics in the United States that he would make a fortune. In the event all he received was death threats and lawsuits.
When he was informed that a large archive of Transition correspondence and manuscripts, in storage since before the Second World War, had been sold to Yale University, he planned a trip to Yale to study it. Travelling by bus to meet me, he went to the wrong city, became lost, and returned home, soon forgetting about a project that was dear to his heart, and well worth his attention. Such erratic behaviour became more commonplace, and his health diminished due to compulsive over-eating and lack of self- discipline. McMillan had a splendid property on Lake Michigan, where he spent his summers, and there as elsewhere he was a generous host.
His lack of initiative to recover his lost manuscripts now puts a considerable burden on those who still wish to see them published. But his published work remains important.
He edited the first volume of The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett (1993), and with James Knowlson a new edition of Waiting for Godot (1993).
Dougald McMillan, literary scholar: born Little Rock, Arkansas 6 December 1937; married (four children); died Carrboro, North Carolina 15 October 1999.
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