Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Aliens, unicorns, and the narcissism of voting Green

Last summer Democrats had an opportunity to pick up what should have been a safe Republican seat in the House of Representatives. The special election in Ohio’s 12th district pitted Republican Troy Balderson against Democrat Danny O’Connor. Other than outlier elections, the district had been Republican for the past 100 years. In 2014 and 2016, the Republican incumbent, Pat Tiberi, received twice as many votes as his Democratic opponent.

Due to Donald Trump’s unpopularity and Democratic voter enthusiasm, polls leading up to the closely-watched August 7 special election showed a tight race. As with the April victory of Democrat Conor Lamb in a Republican district in Pennsylvania, O’Connor’s win would signal to Democratic voters in other pink and red districts that their votes might actually matter this fall. A win would also make O’Connor the favorite in the fall election, putting the Democrats one seat closer to control of the House of Representatives next year. Control of the House would allow the Democrats to check Trump’s insidious agenda, release Trump’s tax returns to the public, investigate Trump’s pre-election collusion with Russia and other acts of political, personal, and financial corruption, and leak the findings from these investigations to the press, reducing the likelihood that Trump would be re-elected.

The lead swung back and forth on election night, but O’Connor had a big disadvantage—the presence of Green Party candidate Joe Manchik on the ballot. Through much of the evening, it was clear that Manchik could cost O’Connor the race by siphoning just enough left-leaning votes to put Balderson over the top. Manchik, a political novice who had speculated that he might have come from an alien race, expressed no concern over possibly helping elect a Republican, since O’Connor was part of the “corporate-capitalist and corporate owned Democratic-Republican Duopoly Oligarchy Party cabal of evil and greed and wars for oil that is driving our country off the road and deep into the ditch of fascism, oligarchy and plutocracy and onto the path to World War III.”

As it turned out, Balderson won by a few hundred more votes than Manchik received, robbing Manchik of the opportunity to be a spoiler, but the possibility that this purely token candidate would play a pivotal role in electing a right-wing Republican made me wonder, yet again: why would any rational, informed, liberal American vote for a Green Party candidate in a winner-take-all election of any consequence?

Green Party officials have long wheeled out the claim that they present an alternative to the Democratic Party, but how realistic of an “alternative” is a party that has barely ever cracked 10% in a federal race and is as likely to send a candidate to Congress as rope a herd of purple unicorns?

Yes, many Democratic office holders’ policy positions aren’t that far left when compared to progressive politicians in other developed countries, but the U.S. is decidedly more conservative than its first world peers. Liberals only make up about one-fourth of American voters; in order to win outside of deep blue districts, Democrats have to appeal to suburban soccer moms, blue-collar Joe Six Packs, and independents.

And despite ideological accommodations to electoral reality, the Democrats are worlds better than Republicans on a long list of issues, including but not limited to access to birth control and the protection of a woman’s right to choose, financial aid and loan forgiveness for college students, access to healthcare, prescription drugs, and prescription drug price control, consumer protection, immigration, environmental issues, drug laws, regulation of Wall Street and other business interests, support for unions, workers’ rights, and worker safety, the minimum wage, investments in infrastructure and social services, progressive taxation/income inequality, LGBT rights, civil rights, voting rights, gun control, net neutrality, campaign finance, support for stem cell research, science, and empiricism, the separation of church and state, protection of Social Security, and a whole host of foreign policy issues stemming from the stark difference between a long-game multilateral approach and an impulsive unilateral approach with little concern for international treaties, norms, or relationships.

Yes, many races are so lopsided that a third-party vote won’t make a difference, but what about close elections? Given that the two major parties are very different at the federal level (see above), why is it that a small number of Americans are willing to empower—knowingly or otherwise—the very same forces they claim to oppose?

American Greens had their first real world impact in 1997, when Green Party candidate Carol Miller helped elect Republican Bill Redmond by three-thousand votes over Democrat Eric Serna for Santa Fe, New Mexico’s congressional seat. As usual, the Greens showed no remorse for playing a key role in putting someone in office who undermined most of what they stood for, as Redmond became a generally reliable foot soldier for Newt Gingrich, the extremist House speaker. Greens reprised their spoiler role the following year in two Albuquerque, New Mexico races, when their candidate Robert Anderson helped Republican Heather Wilson defeat Democrat Phil Maloof in both a special election and the 1998 general election; as then-head of the New Mexico Conservation Voters Alliance said, “The Green Party has been one of the greatest electoral boons to the Republican Party in the history of the state of New Mexico.”

The 1997 and 1998 congressional races were but a dress rehearsal for the 2000 presidential election. Though Democrat Al Gore was far more progressive than Republican George W. Bush and one of the most qualified people to ever run for president, while Bush was one of the least, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader engaged in an extended exercise in false equivalence, calling Bush and Gore “Tweedledee and Tweedledumb” and “two heads of the same beast,” implying that the candidates were so similar that it wouldn’t much matter who won.

On election day, Nader received 97,000 votes in Florida and 22,000 in New Hampshire, in both cases exceeding the narrow margins by which Bush won the states many times over; had Nader not been in the race, Gore would have won both states and become president.

When Bush took office in 2001, Nader’s theory that the parties weren’t that different was put to the test. Nader claimed that Gore’s loss was a “cold shower” for the Democratic Party, but it ended up being a cold shower for the whole country, as Bush assaulted nearly every progressive value in sight.

Worst of all, in the run-up to the 2002 mid-term election, Bush and his top advisors manipulated the fear engendered by 9/11 and the faith placed in him by the American public to lie us into the invasion of Iraq, which would turn out to be one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history. Helped along by the Bush Administration’s flagrantly dishonest media offensive (which played to the Republicans’ perceived strength on national security) and Green Party Candidate Jerry Kaufman, Mike Cox—who would later be part of a GOP lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act—became the first Republican attorney general in Michigan in fifty years. Other beneficiaries of the Bush Administration’s scare tactics were several victorious Republican senatorial candidates who collectively contributed to the GOP wresting control of the Senate from the Democrats, which then guaranteed that Bush’s right-wing judicial nominations would be fast-tracked.

Among these judges was Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh, best known for illegally leaking investigation-related information to reporters during Ken Starr's $70 million witch hunt of Bill Clinton, was called “the youngest, least experienced and most partisan appointee to the court in decades" when he was first nominated.

Kavanaugh sat on the District of Columbia Court through multiple election cycles. In 2004, Nader’s vote total dropped off precipitously as (most) Green voters grasped the dangerous folly of wasting their vote on a third party, but it was too late, as Bush had become a wartime leader with all of the advantages of incumbency. Gore looked pretty goddamn good as first-term Bush not only lied us into a blood-soaked, staggering failure of a war but brought the country to the brink of fascism with the Patriot Act, semi-constant hints that opponents—including media—were anti-American, and color-coded fear alerts he sought to manipulate for political ends. Second-term Bush let New Orleans drown, birthed the worst recession in 80 years by ignoring warning signs in the overheated housing market, took us from a record budget surplus to a record deficit, and left Barack Obama with a colossal mess to clean up.

In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won by such large margins that the Green Party couldn’t do any damage, leaving their candidates to do what Green candidates usually do at the federal level—languish in complete obscurity, contributing exactly nothing of value to the political process.

Then came 2016.

As in 2000, Democrats were up against the eight-year-curse, with Republican voters hungry to get into the White House after two presidential terms in the wilderness. As in 2000, Democrats put up a technocrat with stellar qualifications for the job, while Republicans chose a man of privilege embarrassing in his ignorance, lack of experience, and profound unsuitability for the toughest job in the world. As in 2000, due to the deeply conservative, even reactionary nature of much of the American electorate, the presidential race was close; every (swing state) vote counted.

Enter Jill Stein.

Stein, like Nader a millionaire likely to face no negative impact from the election no matter whom was elected, and sporting shady connections to Vladimir Putin, exhumed Nader 2000’s false equivalence narrative in which a vote for the highly-qualified, vastly superior Democratic candidate was a vote for “the lesser of two evils.” Though the Democrats put up their most progressive platform ever and Clinton pushed an aggressive proposal to regulate Wall Street endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, Stein attacked Clinton as beholden to corporate interests, helped legitimize dubious GOP talking points by chiding Clinton over her email server, pimped the ridiculous claim that Clinton might start a nuclear war with Syria, even at one point mimicked Trump’s attacks on Clinton’s health, suggesting she drop out of the race.

The notion that Clinton and Trump were offsetting penalties, that the result of the 2016 race wouldn’t much matter, was belied by mountains of evidence, but Stein’s message took hold among a crucial number of ideological purists, uninformed young people, and Bernie Sanders supporters who were still angry over the results of the 2016 Democratic primary. No matter that Hillary had won not because of the DNC, but because she had consistently clobbered Bernie among Democrats of color. No matter that Hillary had voted with Bernie 93% of the time they were in the Senate together. No matter that Bernie himself had said Hillary “on her worst day is infinitely better than any Republican candidate on his best day.” No matter that Bernie campaigned for Hillary after the primary, reiterating at rally after rally how important it was to keep Donald Trump out of the White House.

Had Clinton won, we could have easily forgotten Stein, just as we’ve forgotten every single federal Green Party candidate other than Nader, but fate intervened. Eleven days before the election, while Clinton had a six-point lead in national polls and appeared destined to become our next president, Republican FBI head James Comey made the completely unprecedented move of sending a letter to Congress announcing that he was re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s email server.

The weekend before election day, Comey said that his new search had turned up nothing, but the damage had been done. Comey’s letter gave life to the overblown and hypocritical Republican talking point that Clinton was “crooked,” which swung not only fence-sitting independents but enough Stein supporters in the pivotal states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan to put Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

The results are plain to see. James Comey fired for looking into Putin-Trump collusion in the 2016 election. A major coarsening and dumbing down of our political discourse, to the point where up is down and black is white for tens of millions of ignorant and confused Americans. Hate groups so emboldened that they no longer feel a need to hide, with right-wing extremists shooting up a synagogue, killing a black couple in cold blood, and trying to bomb high-profile liberals—all in the last week. An aggressive rollback of Obama’s measures to protect the environment and regulate Wall Street. Children separated from their parents at the border. LGBT rights under assault. 1.5 trillion dollars of taxpayer money pissed away on a tax cut for the wealthy. The Paris Climate Accords and a historic agreement to stop Iran from going nuclear in tatters, a landmark nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia on life support. A fraying of our international alliances and a plunge in America’s image abroad. And a long-term assault-in-the-making on all of the domestic matters above—and long-established precedents for rule of law—through Trump’s record number of judicial appointments, chief among them new Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Thanks to the Green Party, right-wing extremist Kavanaugh became a federal judge in 2006 due to the elevation of Bush and could now determine the fate of Roe v. Wade. Women unfortunate enough to live outside of California, New York, and other deep blue states could soon be forced to drive—or fly—thousands of miles to exercise their reproductive rights, or, lacking the time and resources, put their health and safety at risk with self-administered coat-hanger abortions. Choice is only one casualty of the ideology-first Green Party voters, as our far-right Supreme Court gets ready to lay waste to one liberal bedrock after another these next couple decades, effectively eradicating big sections of 20th Century progress.

The lower courts could stop or slow some of the erosion, but as long as Republican Mitch McConnell runs the Senate Judiciary Committee, appellate and circuit courts will continue to lurch further and further right. Among the small handful of close races that could decide control of the Senate this election cycle is the Arizona contest between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally. Sinema, a former social worker and the first openly bisexual, non-theist Senate candidate in American history, is steering a moderate pro-immigrant, pro-LGBT, pro-gun control direction, while her opponent is a conservative Republican who has the distinctions of voting with Trump 97% of the time and accusing McSally of committing treason for a single sarcastic comment she made on the radio 15 years ago. 

The distinctions between the candidates are clear, the stakes of Senate control are obvious, yet the Green Party is fielding a token candidate in the race, a mortgage broker with zero political experience, Angela Green. Green’s web URL is, but ironically, the only impact Green may have is to get just enough votes to put McSally in office, which could potentially tip the balance of the Senate.

One of the Green Party voters’ favorite slogans is “vote your hopes, not your fears,” a variation on the warm and fuzzy catchphrase that to vote Green is to “vote one’s conscience.” The underlying belief is that voting is most significant as an internal process, that it is primarily about the individual, how they feel about their vote. The problem with this view is that it ignores adult concepts like trade-offs and compromise and the real-world impact of voting; true progressivism is and always has been about selflessness and helping others, not helping ourselves through purely symbolic, narcissistic acts that can ultimately hurt the most disadvantaged among us. As the radical activist Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

More political writing by Dan Benbow: 

10 reasons Barack Obama is clearly
the best president in my lifetime

178 reasons Hillary Clinton is infinitely better
than Donald Trump (even on her worst day)

The Master of Low Expectations: 666 Reasons Sentient Citizens 
are Still Celebrating the Long Overdue Departure of George W. Bush

 Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter       

Sunday, September 9, 2018


“BlacKkKlansman” couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency gave many Americans a smug satisfaction in their country’s racial enlightenment, a feeling that we had overcome, that the hopes and dreams of the ’60s civil rights movement had finally been realized. Donald Trump’s election paved the way for Spike Lee’s newest release by showing just how misplaced this sense of national pride was; it’s hard to imagine this movie having the same degree of resonance if Hillary Clinton had won.

Based on a true story, “BlacKkKlansman” follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the African-American man who integrated the Colorado Springs police department in the early ’70s. After toiling away in the records department for a spell, Stallworth is elevated to the rank of detective. He meets love interest Patrice (Laura Harrier), the head of the local black student union, on his first assignment, going undercover at a speech by black power activist Kwame Ture

Ture is targeted because Stallworth’s chief feels he is a potential security threat, but he is in and out of Colorado Springs in short order. A permanent presence, one with real potential for violence, is the local Ku Klux Klan. With some persistence, Stallworth convinces his boss to greenlight an investigation of the local Klan chapter.

In a series of darkly funny scenes, Stallworth dials up Klan members, including future Trump supporter David Duke, the Klan’s national director, and impersonates a racist white man who is eager to join the organization. Since Stallworth can’t attend the meetings without being discovered, white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) infiltrates the Klan in person. Like Stallworth, Zimmerman has to fake loyalty to an ideology he despises and swallow his pride as the Klansmen he associates with routinely spit out anti-Semitic vitriol.

While Zimmerman investigates the Klan, suspense builds over whether or not he will be found out and on a personal level, Zimmerman faces tension between his professional role and his private self. Prodded by Patrice (no fan of law enforcement), Stallworth deals with a similar internal struggle.

The connections between Colorado Springs in the ’70s and Trump’s America are many. The image of Richard Nixon, the first modern president to exploit white majority racism, appears throughout the movie on campaign posters and signs. Discussing David Duke, one Klansmen tells another that by acting civil and wearing a three-piece suit, Duke is mainstreaming the white power movement, to which the other says, “hopefully one day we get someone in the White House who embodies it.” In case anyone doesn’t get the message, the phrases “America first” and “make America great again” are randomly shouted out in a crowded hall where Duke is speaking.

Everything leads up to a bravura segment that flips back and forth between a joyous Klan initiation emceed by David Duke and a somber set where activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte tells a group of young black political activists the gruesome story of Jesse Washington, a black man who was brutally tortured and murdered in Waco, TX in 1916. The scene shows not only how out of touch the white people at the Klan event are about race but how vastly the perspectives of the two groups of people differ. As Belafonte points out, racist whites aren’t the whole problem; referencing Washington’s murder, he says, “A lot of good white folks stood there like it was a 4th of July parade,” clearly implicating the millions of otherwise decent Americans who normalize or ignore Trump’s bigotry.

“BlacKkKlansman” shifts directions and moods multiple times in the last five-ten minutes, to great effect. There is a feel-good scene in the police office that would be the ending in 99% of Hollywood movies, but Spike Lee refuses to follow formula storyboards. Just as the audience begins to feel safe, a mysterious knock comes at Stallworth’s door in the middle of the night. The startling finale is a necessary shock to the system, a reflection of the primal forces Trump has unleashed and a sad reminder that 150 years after its end, the Civil War continues to rage in the dark hearts of all too many red state Americans.

More civil rights writing by Dan Benbow:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Road to the Mountaintop (about the speech King gave on the last night of his life)

A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth

Honest Abe Makes Sausage (a review of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln")

    Brown v. Board and Three Dog Night's "Black and White"
                         Actions, Not Words (a life review of Ollie Matson, an Olympic medal 
                         winner, NFL Hall-of-Famer, civil rights trailblazer, and good citizen)

                                                                  Colin Kaepernick is right

"Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

"Battle of the Sexes"

                                                                        "American Hustle"


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Angelic voices, #4: Aretha Franklin performs before Barack Obama and Carole King

Aretha Franklin had a voice and a career without parallel among soul vocalists. 

Like many other black singers, Franklin learned her craft in a place of worship, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father was the pastor. By the age of 14, she already had the It Factor, as heard in this gospel recording from 1956. 

When Franklin was 21, her first major-label album, "Laughing on the Outside," was released by Columbia Records. Opinions vary on her Columbia catalog, which leaned on pop and jazz arrangements. What's undeniable is that she found her stride, commercially and artistically, after leaving Columbia and signing with Atlantic Records in the mid-'60s. As detailed in the wonderful documentary "Muscle Shoals," Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler brought Franklin together with the Swampers, a crack team of Southern R & B studio musicians. The results were a string of timeless hits:  "Chain of Fools," "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "Respect," and the crown jewel, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," below.

This period would serve as a trampoline for a magnificent career that would include 112 singles in the Billboard top 200, 75 million records sold, and Franklin becoming the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

Unlike many entertainers who play it safe to line their pockets, Franklin made her humanistic values clear, singing at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral, Jimmy Carter's inaugural, both of Bill Clinton's inaugurals, and Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony. Among Franklin's most dramatic public performances was her rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" in 2015 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where Carole King, among others, was receiving a lifetime achievement award. King's delight at this startling tribute is moving, as is the presence of our elegant first lady and president, whose preternatural cool melts at the beauty of it all. This moment combined some of the best elements of America, from the the marriage of Brill Building songwriting and gospel to the fruits of the civil rights movement to the unification of a large crowd of people from very diverse backgrounds that only music can provide. Aretha was, quite simply, the most transcendent singer this country has produced. 

                                           Other "Truth and Beauty" vocalist profiles: 

                        There must be something in the water:  the magic of "Muscle Shoals" 

             A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth

Angelic voices, #3:  Janis Joplin sings "Cry Baby"  

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Fifteen Minutes in San Francisco

A few years back I had one of many eye-opening experiences on San Francisco's public transportation routes. 

Rather than convey the story through dry, grammatically-correct prose, I chose a freewrite voice better suited to the lively, elastic vibe of those fifteen minutes. Here it is.  

When I reached the bus stop Saturday night a young Spandex-clad woman rambled full tilt into her phone and a really good listener's ear

A bus rolled up I went to the middle of the last row where I could see everything

The guy in front of me to the left played rap music through his phone for all to hear

The guy in front of me to the right bopped his head along just barely to the beat and

Directly in front of Head Bopper was Full Tilt, still yammering away about a friend whose parents were pushing her through school but she wasn't studying enough because she didn't really want to be in school and

A stop, a cat got on, sat next to Rap Boy, fist-bumped him

Stop after that a middle-aged woman got on with a bunch of bags but

She rode just a few blocks and at one stop as the driver was about to close the back door and move along she suddenly yelled, "Wait! I have lots of stuff to carry. Wait!" And so

The driver waited she got off Head Bopper grinned at the drama, started bobbing his head again to the music

Bus pulled up to Van Ness and Market the guy directly in front of me fist-bumped Rap Boy got up to leave and loudly sucked mucus up into his throat without breaking stride and

Did it one more time as he waited for the green light above the back door to come on

Head Bopper grinned again (the shit you see...)

I got off at the next stop, said to Head Bopper, "Endless entertainment on MUNI"

He smiled broadly, said yes

I came down into the long Civic Center BART tunnel two brothers were playing smooth jazz

keyboards and sax over a drum track

I gave 'em a dollar the saxman said thank you I said, "No. Thank y
ou" and

When I looked ahead I saw a homeless man near the add fare machines dancing in a winding drunk belly dancer style to the jazzmen

He saw me see him as I passed and smiled big and full of teeth except the one in the front which was missing

I smiled back and gave him a thumb's up

Through the turnstile,

Downstairs on the subway platform I ran into a soft-spoken bearded dude from my old meet-up group who wrote verse in a little black leatherbound book, if memory serves,

I said hey, don't I know you?

He said

Are you still going to the group?

And so on...

I broke away when the train came

The doors closed behind,

Sealing me in. 

                                                     San Francisco on Truth and Beauty:

eye-catching architecture, and miscellaneous city scenes 
in a stroll from the Mission to South of Market to downtown

"Crystal Blue Persuasion" is a walking photo tour of San Francisco from the Bay to the Ocean (and a golden sunset) on a pristine sunny day just before Xmas

 "On a clear day you can see forever" explores Noe Valley, Ashbury Heights, 
the Inner Sunset district, microclimates, and street art on a pristine September day 

"A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco" is a day tour of the city, 
from Mission Street to the Pacific Ocean

"Random San Francisco" has 46 photos which range from 
ornate architecture to vistas to murals to sidewalk messaging

"Waiting for the Sun" is an essay about riding the bus in San Francisco

"San Francisco sunset, 12/23/14"

"A noirish door mural in the Mission District"

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Without a Net: Henry Miller in His Own Words

“There was something heroic about it and he could have driven us stark mad, Ravel, if he
had wanted to. But that’s not Ravel. Suddenly it all died down. It was as if he remembered,
in the midst of his antics, that he had on a cutaway suit. He arrested himself. A great mistake, in my opinion. Art consists in going the full length. If you start with the drums you have to end with dynamite, or TNT. Ravel sacrificed something for form, for a vegetable that people must digest before going to bed.”

-Henry Miller

Norman Mailer called Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer “one of the ten or twenty great novels of our [20th] century.” George Orwell hailed Cancer as “a remarkable book” with “a feeling for character and a mastery of technique that are unapproached in any at all recent novel.” Novelist Lawrence Durrell said, “For me Tropic of Cancer stands beside Moby Dick…American literature today begins and ends with the meaning of what Miller has done.” Also to pile on the plaudits were powerhouse writers Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos.

And yet, today, Miller’s groundbreaking autobiographical novels receive scant attention in America's literary media organs. Essays on Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and other long-deceased 20th Century American novelists continue to circulate through the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker, but Henry Miller is conspicuously absent.

Have the mannerly beasts of convention that Miller gleefully used for buckshot banished him forever, or will there be revivals, a reward for keeping it real? 

Would he turn in his grave at this very discussion?


Henry Miller was born to German immigrants in Manhattan in 1891 and shortly thereafter moved to Brooklyn.  Of this time and place, Miller wrote in Black Spring, “Where others remember of their youth a beautiful garden, a fond mother, a sojourn at the seashore, I remember, with a vividness as if it were etched in acid, the grim soot-covered walls and chimneys of the tin factory opposite us and the bright, circular pieces of tin that were strewn in the street.”

Early on it was apparent that Miller was gifted, and endlessly curious, but he was not much interested in formal education or a career track, other than having a vague idea that he wanted to be a writer. In 1909 he left City College of New York in his first semester and proceeded to drift until 1917, when he married Beatrice Wickens.  In 1919, Miller’s daughter Barbara was born, and in 1920, to support his family, he became an employment manager for Western Union.

Miller’s experience at Western Union (fictively referred to as "the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company") forms the backbone of Tropic of Capricorn, which was published abroad in 1939.  Stripping the gloss off of the U.S. economic "miracle" of the Roaring Twenties, Miller described the grim corporate practice of employee recycling that continues to this day:

What was needed was a mechanic, but according to the logic of the higher-ups there was nothing wrong with the mechanism, everything was fine and dandy except that things were temporarily out of order. And things being temporarily out of order brought on epilepsy, theft, vandalism…sometimes strikes and lockouts. Whereupon, according to this logic, you took a big broom and you swept the stable clean, or you took clubs and guns and you beat sense into the poor idiots who were suffering from the illusion that things were fundamentally wrong. It was good now and then to talk of God, or to have a little community sing – maybe even a bonus was justifiable now and then, that is when things were getting too terribly bad for words. But on the whole, the important thing was to keep hiring and firing; as long as there were men and ammunition we were to advance, to keep mopping up the trenches.

The time at Western Union soured Miller on the work world, and America itself, specifically the American notion that human progress was inextricably bound to a culture of industry:

I think of all the streets in America combined as forming a huge cesspool, a cesspool of the spirit in which everything is sucked down and drained away to everlasting shit. Over this cesspool the spirit of work weaves a magic wand; palaces and factories spring up side by side, and munition plants and chemical works and steel mills and sanatoriums and prisons and insane asylums. The whole continent is a nightmare producing the greatest misery of the greatest number. I was one, a single entity in the midst of the greatest jamboree of wealth and happiness (statistical wealth, statistical happiness) but I never met a man who was truly wealthy or truly happy.


In 1924, Miller divorced his first wife and married June Mansfield, a dancer with bohemian leanings who was to become his muse for many years. Not long after they tied the knot she
convinced Miller to leave his job and devote himself to writing as she hustled money from male admirers. 

For the next several years, Miller lived on a shoe-string budget subsidized by June, worked occasional odd jobs, and wrote and submitted for little money and zero acclaim.  One editor was kind enough to tell the aspiring author, “It is quite obvious that writing is not your forte.”

All along he had ridden the tide, let the course of events be determined from without, but now Miller found a focus:

I want to go contrary to the normal line of development, pass into a superinfantile realm of being which will be absolutely crazy and chaotic but not crazy and chaotic as the world about me. I have been an adult and a father and a responsible member of society. I have earned my daily bread. I have adapted myself to a world that was never mine. I want to break through this enlarged world and stand again on the frontier of an unknown world which will throw this pale, unilateral world into shadows.

Miller's wish came true when he moved to Paris in 1930 (June stayed behind in New York).  Being alone and in a foreign environment in the early years of the Great Depression was fraught with homelessness, loneliness, and hunger, but the fresh wash of new people, places, and experiences put Miller in a creative fervor that birthed his opus, Tropic of Cancer, released abroad in September, 1934.

From the opening pages of Cancer, the reader is confronted with a bold first-person voice showing no concern for literary niceties:

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.

This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty…

Where many novelists sit at their desk and pull material from the safe haven between their ears, Miller believed in the value of direct experience and spun his narratives the way he lived them, bouncing around from one incident to the next, with deft splotches of local color:

A weird sort of contentment in those days. No appointments, no invitations for dinner, no program, no dough…Dashing here and there like a bedbug, gathering butts now and then, sometimes furtively, sometimes brazenly; sitting down on a bench and squeezing my guts to stop the gnawing, or walking through the Jardin des Tuileries and getting an erection looking at the dumb statues. Or wandering along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it…the trees leaning to, the broken images in the water, the rush of the current under the bloody lights of the bridges, the women sleeping in doorways, sleeping in newspapers, sleeping in the rain; everywhere the musty porches of the cathedrals and beggars and lice and old hags full of St. Vitus’ dance; pushcarts stacked up like wine barrels in the side streets, the smell of berries in the market place and the old church surrounded with vegetables and blue arc lights, the gutters slippery with garbage and women in satin pumps staggering through the filth and vermin at the end of an all-night souse.

Other than a brief stint as a proofreader, and some time teaching English, Miller had little employment after he arrived in Paris.  On the fringes but ever-adaptive, he created
Anais Nin
a loose network of friends by idling around cafes and deploying his listening skills and gift of gab.  Among his new friends was Anais Nin, a writer of erotica who became a lover and benefactor. Nin was just one of many helping hands; to remove the need to punch a clock for sustenance, Miller parlayed his affability into a rotating schedule of meal invitations which broadened his group of associates and provided a well of stories and personalities to channel into his writing. 

Miller’s wife June visited Paris, but, sadly, went back to New York:

The last glimpse I had of her was in the window waving goodbye to me…Mona at the window waving good-bye. White heavy face, hair streaming wild. And now it is a heavy bedroom, breathing regularly through the gills, sap still oozing from between her legs, a warm feline odor and her hair in my mouth. My eyes are closed. We breathe warmly into each other’s mouth. Close together, America three thousand miles away. I never want to see it again. To have her here in bed with me, breathing on me, her hair in my mouth - I count that something of a miracle. Nothing can happen now till morning…

In the winter of 1934, Miller divorced June, not least because he had no desire to return to the United States.  He rejected America’s economic regimen, the tacky consumer culture that drove it, and the toll it had taken on spirituality, creativity, and human interplay.  The soul-sucking eventuated by industrialization had robbed man of his true nature:

All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico. The same story everywhere. If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step. Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement. Production! More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums. Forward! Time presses. The embryo is pushing through the neck of the womb, and there’s not even a gob of spit to ease the passage.

Miller rejected automatism and reveled in the senses, filling his pages with a ripe smorgasbord of tastes, smells, sights and sounds, and the liberal use of naughty words in graphic sex scenes that snuffed the guilt out of sin.  Tropic of Cancer – and future Miller releases – were banned in the United States, but the response in France (where the book was first published) and among many readers of note generated enough sales to keep a roof over Miller’s head and helped fuel the enthusiasm that produced his next two novels, Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn.     

Miller probably would have been content to stay in Paris, but World War II intervened.  He  came back to New York for a time, eventually to settle in Big Sur, California, where he got back to the land, married, fathered two more children, got divorced and re-married, hosted writers, artists and sundry admirers, and continued to write.

In 1958, the prestigious American Institute of Arts and Letters made Miller a member due to a “boldness of approach and intense curiosity concerning man and nature…unequalled in the prose literature of our time.”  Ironically, his major works were still banned in America at the time, but a quantum leap in free expression was right around the corner.  In 1961, at the age of 70, Miller received his biggest paycheck ever when Grove Press handed over a $50,000 advance for three novels with every intent of banking on Miller's underexposed ouvre.  Three years later, in June of 1964, Tropic of Cancer finally beat the censors in the Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein U.S. Supreme Court ruling, thirty years after the book's initial release in France. 

Miller spent his remaining years in Pacific Palisades, California, where he continued to read and write, paint and show his watercolors, ride his bike, and entertain guests until the ripe age of 88. 


What about posterity?  Will Henry Miller last?    

Though he joked of writing for posterity, and graciously kept nearly everything he ever produced for future scholars, biographies and articles about Henry Miller have been rare.  His red-blooded, pre-p.c. sensibility hasn't endeared him to most feminists and elements of the academic left, and he’s too frequently pigeonholed as a writer of dirty books, a la Charles Bukowski, because detractors seek a neat categorical slot in which to stuff his work.  As of 2007, when this article was originally published, even Miller's library in Big Sur refused to look back; verbiage on its website said, “It is not a library where you can borrow books, it is not a memorial with dusty relics, it is not a fully stocked bookstore, it is not a trinket store where you’ll find a large selection of glossy photographs of the coast, t-shirts, mugs and baseball caps. It is not Henry Miller’s old home (that was four miles down the road on Partington Ridge), it is not originally built to be a public place.”    

Miller's ego might be bruised by his modern day lack of recognition, but he probably wouldn’t lose sleep over it, for art, like life, was about the moment.  Behind the scathing rants was a childlike joy at drinking, eating, talking, laughing, and screwing, especially, and a belief in the transformative power of art, and above all, the performance:

I remember an anonymous performer on the Keith Circuit who was probably the craziest man in America, and perhaps he got fifty dollars a week for it. Three times a day, every day in the week, he came out and held the audience spellbound. He didn’t have an act – he just improvised. He never repeated his jokes or his stunts. He gave of himself prodigally, and I don’t think he was a hop fiend either. He was one of those guys who are born in the corn crakes and the energy and the joy in him was so fierce that nothing could contain it. He could play any instrument and dance and step and he could invent a story on the spot and string it out till the bell rang…it was a show that contained more therapy than the whole arsenal of modern science. They ought to have paid a man like this the wages the President of the United States receives. They ought to sack the President of the United States and the whole Supreme Court and set up a man like this as ruler. This man could cure any disease on the calendar. He was the kind of guy, moreover, as would do it for nothing, if you asked him to. This is the type of man who empties insane asylums. He doesn’t propose a cure – he makes everybody crazy.


More pieces about writing on Truth and Beauty: 

             "Magic A is Magic A" and other elements in the Periodic Table of Storytelling
                                  Charles Bukowski: So You Want to Be a Writer?

                                                First and Last Sentences

                                                The Emotion Thesaurus