Ben Miller ’86 accepts Leadership and Service Award

Ben Miller, Class of 1986, we recognize you today for your contributions to American literature and for your role as an ambassador for your alma mater.

Metaphorically speaking, you were the fish that almost got away. At age 15, you won a poetry contest for adults. One of the judges, Cornell Poet-in-Residence Robert P. Dana, encouraged you to contact him when you were ready for college. Dana eventually played a role in your admittance, and once here, you found your voice and thrived. You published poetry and fiction in Open Field, you helped created the literary journal The Jovial Egg, and you played the role of Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In your senior year, you were elected to Phi Beta Kappa won a scholarship to attend the New York University graduate writing program.

After graduating from NYU in 1988, you stayed in New York City, working a day job and writing, writing, writing for more than two decades. Your prose has been published in many journals, including the Kenyon Review, the Antioch Review, the Yale Review, Raritan, and One Story. In addition, your writing has been anthologized in the “Best American Essays” series and the textbook An Introduction to the Prose Poem. In 2013, you published the well-received memoir River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa.  

In 2014-15, you joined scholars, scientists, and artists from around the world as a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. One of the projects you started during your Fellowship year was the “Mural Speaks!” project based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where you now live with your wife, award-winning poet Anne Pierson Wiese [pronounced WEESE]. The project entails translating the sixteen-word-long William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” into each of the 140 plus languages spoken in Sioux Falls. More than 100 versions have been garnered so far from translators in America, Pakistan, Brazil, Norway, Germany and other countries.

As you’ve grown in stature within the literary community, you have continued to be an ambassador for Cornell College. You return to the Hilltop frequently, and in doing so you serve as an example to our students of how a commitment to one’s craft and the immersion in one’s environment can connect and artist to the human community.

On behalf of the Alumni Association Board of Directors and the entire Cornell community, it is an honor to present you with the Leadership and Service Award.


Ben Miller ’86 is an essayist and fiction writer. After Cornell, he attended the New York University writing program, studying under E.L. Doctorow, John A. Williams and Luisa Valenzuela. His prose has been published in many journals, including the Kenyon Review, the Antioch Review, the Yale Review, Raritan and One Story. In the last decade six of his essays have been cited as “Notable” by the Best American Essays anthology and another, “Bix and Flannery,” was chosen to appear in the 2004 edition by Louis Menand. In 2013 he published River Bend Chronicle, a first book lauded by a Daily Beast critic as “The gold standard for literary memoirs in the future.” Miller’s awards include creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Currently he is developing new prose and a collaboration with Brooklyn painter Dale Williams, in addition to the public art project Mural Speaks! based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he now lives with his wife, award-winning poet Anne Pierson Wiese. Miller will return to Harvard in 2017 as the recipient of a research grant from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.