(Note: a downloadable Word document of this essay is attached above.)
In my late high school years, I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover, which I found in my father’s bedroom — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts. I had never heard of Miller.
I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.
The reason I kept the book is that I liked Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts – there were lots of them. I was a teenager curious about and inexperienced in sex. The “good parts” were explicit, more so than other naughty books that I had hitherto peeked at. Besides being erotic, they were well written, amusing, and fun.
Soon — very quickly — I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I found that I enjoyed the sex scenes not only for their explicit erotic content, but also for the humor and the good, zesty writing.
Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but must admit that I have never read it in its entirety — I dipped into the book without reading it sequentially from beginning to end. Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer the former book and think it is underrated. In my opinion, it is by far Miller’s best book. I would deem it a classic of American literature. Few, it seems, would concur.
Tropic of Capricorn is an autobiographical novel, taking the reader from the point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller gives up his conventional workaday life with a wife who bores him (and makes him feel like a captive) and leaves for Paris.
The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum. It seems to be written off the cuff — is written pell-mell as if someone were speaking in that fashion — yet it is constructed with a prefect authorial “ear”; pitched at just the right level and tone (or narrative voice); fashioned so that one episode follows another with undeniable cogency. It’s like a piece of music that is irresistible to the mind and ear.
I kept reading Miller. I spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college — neglecting my studies — and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I basically devoured him.
While in college, I read the first two books of Miller’s trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion — Sexus and Plexus — and enjoyed them greatly. Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But I liked them, to put it mildly. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a healthier appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism (one would have said then, pornography) plus damned good writing.
I went on to read other works of Miller, including much of his nonfiction, which did not have sexual content, and got a real feeling for his range and scope – as well as appreciation for his intellect (to an extent). I say “to an extent” because my admiration for Miller is not primarily admiration for his essays or theories. He was, however, a man with a keen intellect and a man of wide reading and knowledge. He was basically self educated, having only briefly attended college. His interests included music and art as well as literature. He was an amateur pianist and painted thousands of watercolors that are now in major collections.
Miller once wrote (I forget where) that he used to go to bed every night listening to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Reading this, I felt kinship with him, since the Egmont Overture has never failed to inspire me.
Miller dropped out of City College after a semester. One reason, he said, perhaps flippantly, was that he couldn’t bring himself to read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Again, I felt kinship with Miller. In my junior year in college, I took an English course which included The Faerie Queene; I had great difficulty getting through it.
In the second semester of my senior year in college, I took an independent study course, Readings in Henry Miller, with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch, a brilliant up and coming American Studies professor who had a distinguished career.
I have a collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle.
I do, however, find it hard now to get back into him.
I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of Miller’s early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages, which I reread several times in the vain hope that I could get into the book. It is a failure, which I’m certain that Miller himself in his later years would have conceded. He hadn’t found his narrative voice yet. A critic once remarked somewhere that Miller had to write in the first person. (Crazy Cock and other early, then unpublished novels by Miller were written in the third person.) I agree.
I recently reread portions of Miller’s Plexus. I was surprised at how well the book stood up after all those years (meaning the forty-five plus years since I read it), and how well written it is, in my opinion. The characters are well drawn, the narrative flows, the language is just right. Miller very skillfully mixes narrative with exposition; anecdotal material with riffs of a quasi-philosophical nature. The characters are drawn from Miller’s days in New York; you can tell that they were real people – with their idiosyncrasies exaggerated.
One gets the impression – it seems that this was the actual truth – of Miller pounding away at his typewriter, writing at a furious pace. I believe (this is an aside) that it is probable that Miller nowadays would be diagnosed as bipolar.
I have read some of Miller’s letters. One gets the same impression. He can go on for ten or twenty pages. It can get tedious. It can also be spellbinding.
My favorite Miller letter is a long one he wrote on March 9, 1930 to Emil Schnellock, a commercial artist who was a lifelong friend of his, beginning when they both were students at P.S. 85 in Brooklyn. In the letter, Miller describes his first Sunday in Paris: “Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!”
Miller was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and was raised in Manhattan and Brooklyn (his father was a tailor); he worked in Manhattan as a young man. The anecdotes and characters he relates and portrays from his New York City years – mainly the 1920’s — are colorful and engrossing. He was a raconteur’s raconteur. His books reflect what it seems was a time when New York was peopled by colorful characters, rich and poor, of various ethnicities. Miller’s prejudices are plain for all to see. Yet, you get the feeling that he was not a mean or vindictive person. I feel somewhat the same way about Miller’s attitude towards women, for which he has been attacked harshly by feminist critics such as Kate Millet. He denigrates women; he also worships them.
My former psychiatrist once said about Miller that he was a “born writer” — it was, in my psychiatrist’s opinion (which I think is dead on), indisputable fact. The way he put it was that — whatever one might say pro or con about Miller (whom my psychiatrist in fact admired as a writer), whatever critics or guardians of public morals might say against him — one thing had to be conceded: he could WRITE.
I have seen two films based on Miller’s works: Tropic of Cancer (1970) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1970), both set in Paris; and a third, Henry and June (1990), also set in Paris, about Henry Miller, June Miller (Miller’s second wife, his Beatrice), and Miller’s lover and fellow writer Anaïs Nin, in which the lead actor, Fred Ward, does a very good job of portraying Miller. (Quiet Days in Clichy — a short, whimsical work — was one of my favorite Miller books.) I thought the film Tropic of Cancer was just so so, and was a letdown. Quiet Days in Clichy, I recall, was well done. The film was a sincere attempt to catch the essence of Miller.
Henry Miller died at his home in Pacific Palisades, California on June 7, 1980 at the age of 88. I read his obituary in The New York Times. I felt a genuine sense of loss and was saddened that we wouldn’t have him around to amuse and goad us any more. He was a free spirit who referred to himself in Tropic of Cancer as “the happiest man alive.” Reading him made me feel liberated, better about myself, and happy. It seems that this has been the case with many of his other readers.
One criticism I would make of Miller is that at a certain point in later life he stopped developing, as a writer. This point was made by Miller’s former Paris friend Alfred Perlès in a book by Perlès that seems to be forgotten: My Friend Henry Miller (New York, 1956). Perlès felt that, after Miller returned to the United States from France, he lost an important source of stimulus and became “stagnant.” I agree. I think that there was something about the challenge of living a hand to mouth existence while experiencing a tremendous surge of sexual and social liberation, cultural novelty, and intellectual stimulation in Paris during the 1930’s (as Perlès noted) that brought out the best in Miller and enabled him to achieve a literary breakthrough whereby he produced many of his best works.
Miller was given at times — not surprising in view of his prodigious output and method of composition — to making fatuous statements. He would get carried away by his enthusiasms. He titled an essay about his lover Anaïs Nin “Un Être Étoilique” (A Heavenly Being). This was overpraise for Nin.
Miller was regarded, besides being the writer who managed almost single-handedly to break down barriers against obscenity, as a forerunner of the Beat Generation. I never considered him to be a beatnik or proto-hippie.
Yet, once in the early 1970’s, I picked up a hitchhiker, a bearded hippie. It turned out he was an intellectual and we started talking about writers. I mentioned that Henry Miller was one of my favorite writers, thinking he would have never heard of Miller, much less read him. “Henry Miller is one of my all time favorites,” he said.
— Roger W. Smith
The following exchange of emails with Thomas P. Riggio, Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut, occurred in November 2016, subsequent to my posting of the above essay.
Your journey with Henry Miller is very interesting. During my teaching years, I used to be the only one in a large department who assigned books by Miller. I became an object of discussion among the bookstore managers. As a result, I remember members of my department, often very liberal and well educated types, dismissing his work as pornography.
I was a big fan of his work, and like you, think Capricorn is his masterpiece. I recall that my students had very polar reactions to his work — many (especially men) felt him as a liberating voice and others (mainly women) were turned off by him. It got to the point, beginning with the culture wars of the 1990’s, where I found it not worth the angst to teach him any longer.
By the way, apropos of your references to Spenser, I’ve always thought that the figure of Una in Capricorn and elsewhere — the idealized figure of virtue, truth etc. — was a reference to Una in The Faerie Queene … writers sometimes talk trash about some of their influences to throw readers/critics off their trail. Though, that said, I can’t imagine Spenser as among Miller’s favorite writers.
Black Spring has a lot of good writing in it, including the essay on childhood and relationship to his tailor father. The writing is very unlike the style of the two Tropics.
Glad to learn you are a fan. Yes, I can see that he would be harder to read as we age. He touches everything in us, and youthful hormones are not the least of them.
P.S. Do you know his comments on Dreiser in The Books in My Life? And, did you know his first unpublished book, written at the telegraph office, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men?
response by Roger W. Smith
Thanks a lot for your feedback. Some thoughts, in no particular order.
Regarding the hassles of teaching Miller, because he was pornographic, I also have a blog post about the so called “dirty books” I encountered as an adolescent (without really reading most of them). See Roger W. Smith, “‘dirty’ books” at
I had an outstanding high school English teacher … he was a realist and knew that it wasn’t worth fighting the authorities to teach books like The Catcher in the Rye and Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which there was the occasional obscenity or sex scene.
I’m glad you agree with me about Tropic of Capricorn. An ex-friend of mine, a poet living in Manhattan, was a voracious reader who would put me to shame, he was so well and widely read, steeped in the classics, fully conversant with poetry and with challenging modern authors (e.g., Thomas Pynchon).
Henry Miller was by no stretch of the imagination his favorite, but I was surprised when he told me one day that he was reading Black Spring. He commented on how impressed he was with the brilliant writing (read, style).
Of course, we know that Kate Millet had Miller in her sights and, in part, made her reputation attacking him. Regarding Miller’s misogyny, though it didn’t bother me, she had a point.
The Una-Spenser-Miller reference of yours is intriguing.
I didn’t know at the time when I was becoming a Miller fan that Miller was a Dreiser fan. As a matter of fact, I was almost completely unaware of Dreiser, aside from the fact that there was a paperback of Sister Carrie on my older brother’s bookshelf; it was on his syllabus in college.
I was recently looking for Miller writings about Dreiser. It turns out there is very little.
Many of Miller’s works are hard to come by, very hard, if one can even identify and find them. I found that some scholar or other published a comprehensive two volume Miller bibliography not long ago: Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1979) and Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Primary Sources (1993-94). It may have been a limited print run. Very few libraries seem to have the book, and, if they do, they usually do not have both volumes.
I am a bibliophile and book collector, but I am not an antiquarian and I don’t collect books for profit. I found that both volumes of the Miller biblio were available for sale on the Internet. I purchased them. They were in mint condition. They are fascinating to browse.
I have read that early works by Miller — trial works, as it were –either came close to getting completely lost or, in some cases, can not be found. For example, I think the ms. of “Clipped Wings” has been lost.
I read that some early writings of Miller such as Crazy Cock were unearthed from the possessions of Miller’s second wife June, who may have possibly become reclusive in old age. I believe she survived Miller.
I did put one post about Miller and Dreiser on my Dreiser blog. See
I am ashamed to admit it! I was actually a fan of Anais Nin for a while. I bought some books by and about her and Miller at the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. A little while later, after my short lived enthusiasm for Nin had waned, a friend made the remark to me, which I feel is true, “she’s unreadable.” One word that seems to apply to her diaries is solipsistic.
I never really read Lawrence Durrell.
I am vaguely aware of Miller’s comments about Dreiser in The Books in My Life. Thanks for reminding me about them.
Miller was never the type of writer to appeal to academics — there seem to be very few scholarly papers or monographs about him. It is interesting to hear that you actually taught him.
Nowadays, it seems quite possible if not probable that curriculum watchdogs would not approve of his works as passing ideological muster.
I did know about the influence on Miller of Dreiser’s Twelve Men. See the post of my Dreiser site at