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.”
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
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.
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