Henry Miller, infamous for his use of unvarnished sexuality and seamy portraits of city life, combined a variety of modes – ranging from surrealism and romanticism to the jeremiad and the burlesque – as he investigated his life. His major works banned for three decades, Miller wrote prolifically, and versions of his experiences – both verifiable and fantastic – lie at the core of his narratives. While his sexual imagery often distracts his readers, Miller's importance far surpasses his numerous obscenity trials and extends to both his avant garde narrative style and his rejection of the strangulating values of capitalism.
Born on December 26, 1891, Henry Valentine Miller experienced an ambivalent childhood in which he disdained his mother's bourgeois pretensions yet benefited from his status, particularly in relation to the struggling immigrants who encroached daily on his neighborhood. In Black Spring (1936) and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy – Sexus (1949), Plexus (1952b), and Nexus (1959) – Miller, via his eponymous narrator, describes feelings of dislocation and anxiety over the hypocrisy of desires suppressed in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Chastised for giving away some of his many possessions to poor children, the young Miller was laying the mental groundwork to associate sympathetically with an underground intellectual tradition that challenged the all-American values of the work ethic and orthodox Christianity.
At a young age, Miller began reading the subversive philosophies of Nietzsche, Max Stirner, and Emma Goldman, whom he met in California, readily lapping up her challenges to capitalist conformity. In The Books in My Life (1952a), he also acknowledges Dostoevsky, Theodore Dreiser, Elie Faure, Marcel Proust, Arthur Rimbaud, and Lao Tzu, among others, as influences. Miller typically admired intellectual rebels who bristled at orthodoxy, literary mentors who eschewed linear narratives, and a personal spiritualism that readers have frequently misread.
After a brief 1913 stint as a “cowboy,” Miller initially lived a conventional lifestyle, marrying the first of his five wives, Beatrice Wickens, to avoid the draft during World War I. His job as personnel director for a branch of Western Union changed his life and is immortalized in Tropic of Capricorn (1939b) as the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company. He found in the telegraph company a microcosm of the arbitrariness of American capitalism, and alternatively loathing and relishing his power, Miller jotted down stories about some of the most compelling messengers, whom he often compared to angels. While “Clipped Wings” was a self-proclaimed failure that pathetically echoed Dreiser's voice, it did reinvigorate his desire to write, a passion that June Mansfield Smith – soon to become his mistress and then his second wife – would ignite.
June (Julia Edith Smerth) offered the ostensible subject for several of Miller's most famous narratives: Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus. She would also filter through Tropic of Cancer (1934). Through the decades, Miller would represent June (alternatively as “Mara” and “Mona”) as a Janus-faced figure: part muse, part tormentor. Although she believed in Miller's ability and encouraged him to quit his high-paying job, he believed her income came from a type of genteel prostitution. Later, June would, according to Miller, have a lesbian relationship with Jean Kronski, a mutual friend, and ultimately the emotional turbulence she provided would fuel Miller's writing for decades, most notably in the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy.
Paris, where Miller would eventually visit in 1928 and live from 1930 to 1939, served as another major inspiration. Arriving alone with 10 dollars, Miller initially found Paris a dispiriting place. However, he eventually met kindred spirits who shared his criticisms of capitalism and his love for art. Often dueling with him in conversation and via letter (Miller would write letters prolifically), new friends such as Michael Fraenkel, Walter Lowenfels, Conrad Moricand, David Edgar, Lawrence Durrell, and Anaïs Nin encouraged and inspired Miller. Miller characterized Paris far differently than the expatriates of the 1920s and reveled in squalor, and during this period he dropped the stilted style of his first novel, Moloch (1992 ), and adopted a first-person voice that exploded off the page.
While some versions of his second novel, Crazy Cock (1991 [c. 1928–30]), contain flashes of this voice, it is in Tropic of Cancer where it appears consistently. Bombastic and tender, crude and erudite, the style ranges widely in an attempt to capture the honest contradictions of Miller's life. He distorts his experiences greatly, however, making use of caricature in attempting to depict the emotional core of his experiences. While many early critics marked Miller as a realistic writer or, paradoxically, a purely surrealist one, the current critical consensus is that Miller adopts a mixed mode, one that mingles earthy depictions of sex and grime with ecstatic reveries. In addition, this autobiographical romance (Miller's term) also contains miniature essays and set pieces on such subjects as Matisse and time. Miller later remarked that his readers generally preferred either the sex (such as the apostrophe to Tania's vagina or the sexual misadventures of Van Norden) or his spirituality, but he felt that both aspects were of a piece, much as Walt Whitman had adopted the Hindu perspective that ugliness and beauty flow from the same source and thus are inseparable.
Drawing from a variety of heterodox traditions, such as theosophy and Gnosticism, Miller discards organized religion in favor of a personalized spirituality. Miller, especially later in life, often talked about giving up writing, which represented a struggle, and merely living life to the fullest. Such self-liberation is a constant theme in all his books. Miller did not see “Henry Miller” as a man to be emulated; rather, he saw him as a figure who had not yet attained enlightenment and who pursued indiscriminate sex and sordid diversions as a way of avoiding himself. Only after his “rosy crucifixion,” the despair of June's abandonment and initial time in Paris, could he cast off his pain-causing desires and pursue the art that would lead to rebirth. By interrogating the past, Miller can free himself for “China,” his term for a nirvana-like realm.
Casual readers might wonder at this goal, since “Henry Miller” seems hardly peaceful, a whirl of activity who explodes at the injustices he encounters. Tropic of Capricorn, in particular, targets capitalism and its ideological superstructures (church, school, democracy, etc.) for its wrath. From Fraenkel, among others, Miller acquired the idea that the materialist impulse driving capitalism squelched individuality, and that despite rhetoric that prized the exceptional, capitalist mechanisms destroy identity and demand conformity. The messengers in the book have nearly all been broken by their quest for the American dream, a goal Miller likens to a narcotic for the soul. As in Buddhism, “things” cloud the mind and cause pain. External forms become more important than internal character, and only a Spengler-like destruction can forebode a new order.
Sensing this, the narrator seeks to transgress in any way that he can, and sexuality becomes a way of subverting the underpinnings of capitalism, particularly the middle-class family and monogamy. In large swaths of Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Sexus, the narrator and his friends pursue one sexual relationship after another, activity that has prompted many feminist critics to label Miller a misogynist. However, other scholars, including some leading feminists, note that none of Miller's characters (other than the central voice) are particularly well rounded and that most men are mocked. Miller portrays sex not as a sacred activity or as a goal unto itself, but as an enjoyable part of life. Grove Press published the banned works in 1961, and a 1964 Supreme Court decision put an end to the many obscenity trials that ensued.
While Miller's use of sexuality has cemented his reputation as a “realist,” much of his writing consists of fantasy and dreams. He read Freud, Jung, Rank, and others, and he knew and studied many of the European leaders of surrealism and Dada. His lover, Nin, was also instrumental in focusing his attention on dreams and the unconscious. As with the Romantics, Miller infused his writing with both nightmarish and dreamlike passages. Black Spring, for instance, has entire sections based on both Lewis Carroll-like nonsense and Poe-like horrors. Miller's realism, therefore, extends well beyond the mimesis of the nineteenth-century realists and naturalists, and into the “other” reality of the imagination and unconscious. His work regularly juxtaposes a depiction of “real” events with purely fantastic images. At times Miller will extend dreams over many pages, while at others shifting more rapidly.
Quick transitions between modes comprise a hallmark of Miller's narrative style. He often jumps chronologically and thematically, interrupting the narrative at crucial points. In some cases he begins an anecdote only to rupture the narrative with a catalogue, a dream, a memory, or a delirious, poetically charged discourse on a single word. Sometimes, his departures extend dozens of pages before picking up the anecdote again. Miller called this technique “spiral form,” which allows him the freedom to abandon plot in order to pursue emotionally significant digressions. Earlier critics assumed this style to be formless and sloppy, but recent trends (informed by poststructuralism and other theories) have linked it to an alinear tradition of Rabelais, Petronius, and Whitman. Miller's contribution to the genre in many ways resembles the “talking cure” championed by the psychoanalysts of his day whereby digression ultimately yields emotional truth.
While critics and biographers frequently read Miller's narratives as transparent renderings of his experience, perceptive readers have noticed that the writer regularly distorted the external facts of his life. Seeking internal truths rather than factual accuracy, Miller often insists on a subjective reality. As such, he is not above changing, deleting, or adding “facts” to better conform to his self-mythology. Miller's emotional honesty and powerful style influenced a variety of writers, including Lawrence Durrell, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon, and Erica Jong. His later work – the Book of Friends trilogy – employs a more sedate, nostalgic voice. Miller died on June 7, 1980.
SEE ALSO: The Avant Garde Novel (AF); Dreiser, Theodore (AF); Durrell, Lawrence (BIF); Gender and the Novel (AF); Modernist Fiction (AF)
- A Self-Made Surrealist: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Work of Henry Miller, Rochester, NY: Camden House. (2000).
- The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. New York: Simon and Schuster. (1991).
- Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity. New York: Routledge. (2005).
- Henry Miller: A Life. New York: Norton. (1991).
- New Anatomies: Tracing Emotions in Henry Miller's Writings. New York: Bern Porter. (2000).
- The Mind and Art of Henry Miller. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. (1967).
- The Literature of Silence. New York: Knopf. (1967).
- Henry Miller and the Surrealist Discourse of Excess: A Post-Structuralist Reading. New York: Peter Lang. (2001).
- The Devil at Large. New York: Turtle Bay. (1993).
- Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra. (1978).
- Tropic of Cancer. Paris: Obelisk. (1934).
- Black Spring. Paris: Obelisk. (1936).
- The Cosmological Eye. Norfolk, CT: New Directions. (1939a).
- Tropic of Capricorn. Paris: Obelisk. (1939b).
- The Colossus of Maroussi. San Francisco: Colt. (1941a).
- The Wisdom of the Heart. Norfolk, CT: New Directions. (1941b).
- The World of Sex. New York: J.H.N. [Ben Abramson]. (1941c).
- The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New York: New Directions. (1945).
- Sexus. Paris: Obelisk. (1949).
- The Books in My Life. New York: New Directions. (1952a).
- Plexus. Paris: Corrêa. (1952b).
- Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. New York: New Directions. (1957).
- Nexus. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzel. (1959).
- Crazy Cock [c. 1928–30]. New York: Grove Weidenfeld. (1991).
- Moloch; or, This Gentile World . New York: Grove. (1992).
- The Brotherhood of Fools and Simpletons: Gods and Devils in Henry Miller's Utopia. Paris: Alyscamps. (2005).
- Henry Miller, the Modern Rabelais. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen. (1990).
- Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Primary Sources. Ann Arbor: Roger Jackson. ; (1993).
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