“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.”
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.” Ben Ray Redman spoke for many an excited reader when he wrote that Miller was “one of the most remarkable, most truly original authors of this or any age.” Also to pile on the plaudits at one time or another were powerhouse writers Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos.
And yet, today, Miller’s raucous 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, the New Yorker, and the New Republic, 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 in Manhattan to German immigrants 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, though he had 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 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 central muse for many years after. June was also a hustler, capable of scrounging up money with the wiles of her enimagnetic personality. Not long after they tied the knot she convinced Miller to leave his job and devote himself to writing.
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 in September, 1934).
From the opening pages of Cancer, the reader is confronted with a bold first-person voice with little 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 have been known to 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 aimlessly from one incident to the next, overarching themes be damned, with deft splotches of local color:
Nothing better between five and seven than to be pushed around in that throng, to follow a leg or a beautiful bust, to move along with the tide and everything whirling in your brain. 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 from the time he arrived in Paris . On the fringes but ever-adaptive, he created a new, 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 one of Miller’s lovers and a sometime 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 automatonism and reveled in the senses and the sensual, filling his pages with a ripe smorgasbord of tastes, smells, sights and sounds, including liberal use of naughty words and 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 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 Springand Tropic of Capricorn.
It’s doubtful Miller would have minded following the tide in Paris for some time longer, but World War II intervened. Miller 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 September of 1964, Tropic of Cancer finally beat the censors in the Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein U.S. Supreme Court ruling, thirty years after Cancer’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 many 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. Even Miller’s library in Big Sur refuses to look back. The library's website pointedly says: “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 may have been bruised by a modern day lack of recognition, but he probably wouldn’t have lost a lot of 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.