Please see my post
“Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!” (a Henry Miller letter)
— Roger W. Smith
Please see my post
“Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!” (a Henry Miller letter)
— Roger W. Smith
The approach of actual want was such an insidious thing that I really did not perceive how far I was getting into the depths before I was fairly caught and unable to extricate myself. I had always been accustomed in the past to make some arrangement with a magazine or publishing house to do some work which would pay me fairly well and this hope was now all the time acting like a will-a’ -the-wisp leading me thoughtlessly over the meadows of idleness and meditation to the slough of despond. Day after day I would get up and sit at my desk a little while feeling that this morning surely some ray of inspiration would arrive, but finding that it did not I would get up and go out, wandering around and saying to myself that if I could but rest a bit it would all come back to me. I was not really sick in the sense that anyone is prostrate in bed. I could walk and run and laugh and read, but I could not write, and worst of all I could not sleep. This latter difficulty was gradually undermining me though it did not seem as bad at first as it did later. I used to go down to the water’s edge of the East River, which was only a few blocks below me, and there in the neighborhood of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Wallabout Bay sit and enjoy the wonderful panorama which the river invariably presented. It seemed to me that when I came within the vicinity of these great warehouses and factories, with their tall black stacks that gave the water’s edge so varied and picturesque an aspect, I could lounge and dream forever. Not to worry, not to haste, not to be caught in the great turmoil of the city beyond from whose distant shore came subdued echoes of the clangor and strife that was always there–that seemed heaven to me. I sat and looked into the soft green waters gurgling and sipping about the docks and the stanchions below me and listened to the crying of the boats, until my heart was full to overflowing with it, but alas my purse was empty. And that was where the love of beauty undid me.
The approach of actual want was such a terrible thing however that whenever I thought of it distinctly I would get up and return to my room, or would hurry out into the streets almost in a cold sweat, saying, “I must do something.” Frequently I would start out and after walking the streets trying to think of some business that would likely offer me a means of making a living I would fix my eye on some distant shop and say to myself that when l came to it l would go in there. I would walk toward it, my feeling about life and labor wonderfully heightened for the moment, but as I drew near a cold fear of inability would lay hold of me. What would they think, I would begin to ask myself. What could I do in there? Sometimes I would see someone looking at me from one of the windows, a man or girl, or from the houses about and I would say to myself, “Pshaw, they see me coming. They think I am someone who is above that kind of work. They will not believe that I need it and tum me away. And how will I look to them anyhow?” And I would turn away carrying myself as if the thought of that sort of labor was the farthest thing from me imaginable. Or I would stand about and parley with myself, weighing the pros and cons until I had harrowed myself into the belief that I would not be acceptable. Always I would think of my own work, and hard as it was, would contrast my appropriateness to that with my inappropriateness to this and then I would weaken and hurry away. Dozens upon dozens of times have I stood outside of all sorts of institutions wondering, debating, saying that I was unsuited to it or the business was unsuited to me and in the end turning back disconsolately to my room, there to brood and worry over my fate.
The remembrance of this weakness has proved a great wonder to me since. I am not naturally afraid to face people and these sentiments do not as a rule rule me, but I was so rundown nervously that I did not have my usual feeling about things. Sickness had apparently made a coward of me.
As these reflections did not relieve my situation any I would after a night of sleepless tossing usually pull myself together again and make another effort. Once in these early days I went to a great sugar refinery far down on the water’s edge where many a day I had stood looking at the wagons and the men and the evidence of industry inside and wondering at the complicatedness of it all. (What a mystery the life we lead is. How strangely we divide this problem of sustenance, how narrowly some of us work in small dark comers all our days and never think or at least never attain to the heights of our thinking.) On this day however my mind did not busy itself with this larger spectacle. I was anxious to get something to do there and I was wondering how I could persuade the foreman or the management to accept me. Once I had read a long account of the labor struggles of another writer who had dressed himself to look the part of a laborer and I had always wondered how he would have fared if he had gone in his own natural garb. Now I was determined or rather compelled to find out for myself and I had no heart for it. I realized instinctively that there was a far cry between doing anything in disguise and as an experiment and doing it as a grim necessity.
However I went in after hanging about for some time and asked for the manager. As I expected he was busy but a clerk who came over to me wished to know what my business was. I cold him I wanted work. He looked at me in a quizzical way as much as to say, “You?”
“What kind of work is it you wish to do?” he asked.
I tried to explain as quickly as I could that I wished to do any kind of work, manual or mental, but he did not seem to understand me. “You couldn’t do the physical work here,” he said. “All our clerical positions are filled. We don’t change very often.”
“Is there something you could give me to do out there?” I said, motioning with my hand toward the great dark mass behind.
“Nothing at present,” he said. “We are not taking on men at this time of year. I’m quite positive you couldn’t do the work if you had it. It’s very hard.”’
He turned with a brusque manner to his work again and I fell back abashed. His loud voice had attracted the attention of others, who looked at me curiously. I felt as if he might have been a little more quiet and a little more considerate, but I found here as everywhere what seemed to me the old indifference to the underdog. People do not see–I said–they have not the faculty to grasp what it means to be the other man. Otherwise they would never do such things.
My next effort was in search of a motorman’s or conductor’s position, a place I had long had in mind as I was sure it was something that I could do. It was not a thing that I could get quickly, for I knew that unless I had a “pull” or could bring some extraordinary pressure to bear I would have to go through the usual formality of enrolling my name somewhere and then waiting patiently for my turn to be called. I had vivid dreams of forcing my way into the office of the president, who I conceived to be a man who could tell by my appearance that I was not exactly of the ordinary run of men, and who on my putting the matter before him would understand and give me something to do. I went down to the section where this great railroad building was located but as usual when I reached there my heart failed me. It was an hour before I raked up courage enough to go in.
This building was a mass of little offices devoted to different phases of the street railway and when I looked over the immense directory painted on the wall I could scarcely tell which office it was at which I wished to inquire. I saw the name of the president posted as being in room one hundred and something, on the fourth floor, but now my idea of going in and talking to him looked awfully foolish and hopeless to me. The idea of intruding on a man with endless affairs weighing on him and the financial end only of the great company before his gaze struck me as exceedingly useless. He would have nothing to do with me. All he would do would be to refer me to the department which handled such cases as mine and they would not dare to make an exception. It seemed impossible and yet I went up.
In an ante-chamber I was met by a clerk. As I expected he told me the president was busy and asked me my business. When I explained to him, he looked at me curiously also and said the president never attended to such details–that I would have to go to the regular department, mentioning the number. I saw how hopeless it was of making a boy see–an inexperienced youth who knew nothing of the world, and went away. I could have written an essay that morning on how nature meets want with inexperience and pain with those who cannot see. Blind! Blind! Blind!
The office of the Superintendent of Something, who hired men, was on the floor below and there I went. It was a small room filled with motormen and conductors who were there being measured for new suits or answering to complaints of various kinds. All of them looked at me with curious eyes as I came in, for I was still comparatively well-dressed, and some of them stood aside in so deferential a way that I felt that I was sailing under false colors. I went up to the counter where the official was standing and stated my business. When I had come in he had looked at me with so much consideration that I felt he mistook me for someone who had important business with him. When I finally explained that I wished to know where applications for positions were made his face changed immediately and he told me in brusque tones where to go. I felt like an imposter slinking out for it seemed to me I had in some indefinable way misrepresented myself to him. I had not turned out to be what he took me for.
This phase of my reception discouraged me greatly but I went down to the little office on a side street near the East River, in a one-story red brick building, where I found a room containing a few old benches and an inner door marked “Applicants” but no persons. A sign hung up over a window informed me that those who wished to register should come between the hours of seven and nine A. M. on Tuesdays and Fridays, which I confess was a great relief to me. I had anticipated another such ordeal as I had just gone through and the mere fact that it was postponed was something. I turned on my heel, temporarily relieved from the ache that inquiring under such conditions gave me, and promised myself that I would come back on Tuesday. I then wandered about saying that I must look for something elsewhere but, being out and moving, I did nothing. It was the old story of the previous days. I could not find the heart to go in.
That such a quest would soon prove disastrous I was constantly seeing and yet I could not get anything. I went back to the newspapers–they had nothing. I came over to New York and thought to put an application in over there, but I did nothing but walk the streets. On Tuesday I returned to this little office again, desperately clinging to the fatuous belief that having managed to go so far, something would come of it. I had dressed myself carefully to make as good an impression as possible but when I got there, or rather in the vicinity of it, I was sorry that I had done so. At a distance of three blocks I saw quite a crowd standing around so early as seven o’clock and in the vicinity, at distances of from one to two blocks, other individual stragglers, who impressed me at once as people who like myself were anxious to register but were ashamed to go up. They were a little better dressed than those who were gathered about the door–not so strong-looking and not so coarse. They pretended to be doing anything but heading for this particular institution though one could see by their averted glances that that was just the thing they were trying to do. I encountered two or three of them three or four times in a radius of as many blocks and each time they exchanged that shamed look of understanding with me, which convicts one of ulterior designs. It was all very painful.
What interested me on this occasion was my own wretched attitude. For the life of me I could not summon up sufficient courage to join that crowd. Three or four times I went toward it, getting as close as the corner, but each time I would see some of those at the door looking up toward me and I would say to myself, “They see what I am coming for,” and would turn off. Once I did go down absolutely determined to stop and take my place among them, but the keen conception of the difference between them and me which flared up in my mind as I approached drove me on by. They were so young, most of them, so raw and so inexperienced. They looked at me as though they thought I was some critical business man or other citizen merely passing on my way to my office. They had such sharp eyes which seemed to say, “Now let us see what he does,” that I could not bring myself to stop.
For this feeling–vanity or weakness as it may seem to some, I have now no excuse to offer. I will say that the difference I felt was not based on a sense of superiority–far from it. I was only conscious that I was out of place and they knew it. It was more like the case of an old man who would like to play with children on their own basis, but who has lost the how of it.
My first visit to this registering room was a failure as was my second, but on the third time I managed to go in and put down my name, which brought me nothing. I left my address, the chain of which has never been broken, but I have never heard a word.
— Theodore Dreiser, An Amateur Laborer (1904, published in 1983)
It is customary to blame everything on the war. I say the war had nothing to do with me, with my life. At a time when others were getting themselves comfortable berths I was taking one miserable job after another, and never enough in it to keep body and soul together. Almost as quickly as I was hired I was fired. I had plenty of intelligence but I inspired distrust. Where ever I went I fomented discord–not because I was idealistic but because I was like a searchlight exposing the stupidity and futility of everything. Besides, I wasn’t a good ass-licker. That marked me, no doubt. People could tell at once when I asked for a job that I really didn’t give a damn whether I got it or not. And of course I generally didn’t get it. But after a time the mere looking for a job became an activity, a pastime, so to speak. I would go in and ask for most anything. It was a way of killing time – now worse, as far as I could see than work itself. I was my own boss and I had my own hours, but unlike other bosses I entrained only my own ruin, my own bankruptcy. I was not a corporation or a trust or a state or a federation or a polity of nations–I was more like God, if anything.
This went on from about the middle of the war until … well, until one day I was trapped. Finally the day came when I did desperately want a job. I needed it. Not having another minute to lose, I decided that I would take the last job on earth, that of messenger boy. I walked into the employment bureau of the telegraph company–the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America–towards the close of the day, prepared to go through with it. I had just come from the public library and I had under my arm some fat books on economics and metaphysics. To my great amazement I was refused the job.
The guy who turned me down was a little runt who ran the switchboard. He seemed to take me for a college student, though it was clear enough from my application that I had long left school. I had even honoured myself on the application with a Ph.D. degree from Columbia University. Apparently that passed unnoticed, or else was suspiciously regarded by this runt who had turned me down. I was furious, the more so because for once in my life I was in earnest. Not only that, but I had swallowed my pride, which in certain peculiar ways is rather large. My wife of course gave me the usual leer and sneer. I had done it as a gesture, she said. I went to bed thinking about it, still smarting, getting angrier and angrier as the night wore on. The fact that I had a wife and child to support didn’t bother me so much; people didn’t offer you jobs because you had a family to support, that much I understood only too well. No, what rankled was that they had rejected me, Henry V. Miller, a competent, superior individual who had asked for the lowest job in the world. That burned me up. I couldn’t get over it. In the morning I was up bright and early, shaved, put on my best clothes and hot-footed it to the subway. I went immediately to the main offices of the telegraph company … up to the 25th floor or wherever it was that the president and the vice-presidents had their cubicles. I asked to see the president. Of course the president was either out of town or too busy to see me, but wouldn’t I care to see the vice-president, or his secretary rather. I saw the vice-president’s secretary, an intelligent, considerate sort of chap, and I gave him an earful. I did it adroitly, without too much heat, but letting him understand all the while that I wasn’t to be put out of the way so easily.
When he picked up the telephone and demanded the general manager I thought it was just a gag, that they were going to pass me around like that from one to the other until I’d get fed up. But the moment I heard him talk I changed my opinion. When I got to the general manager’s office, which was in another building uptown, they were waiting for me. I sat down in a comfortable leather chair and accepted one of the big cigars that were thrust forward. This individual seemed at once to be vitally concerned about the matter. He wanted me to tell him all about it, down to the last detail, his big hairy ears cocked to catch the least crumb of information which would justify something or other which was formulating itself inside bis dome. I realized that by some accident I had really been instrumental in doing him a service. I let him wheedle it out of me to suit his fancy, observing all the time which way the wind was blowing. And as the talk progressed I noticed that he was warming up to me more and more. At last some one was showing a little confidence in me! That was all I required to get started on one of my favourite lines. For, after years of job hunting I had naturally become quite adept; I knew not only what not to say, but I knew also what to imply, what to insinuate. Soon the assistant general manager was called in and asked to listen to my story. By this time I knew what the story was. I understood that Hymie–”that little kike”, as the general manager called him–had no business pretending that he was the employment manager. Hymie had usurped his prerogative, that much was clear. It was also clear that Hymie was a Jew and that Jews were not in good odour with the general manager, nor with Mr. Twilliger, the vice-president, who was a thorn in the general manager’s side.
Perhaps it was Hymie, … who was responsible for the high percentage of Jews on the Messenger force. Perhaps Hymie was really the one who was doing the hiring at the employment office–at Sunset Place, they called it. It was an excellent opportunity, I gathered, for Mr. Clancy, the general manager, to take down a certain Mr. Burns who, he informed me, had been the employment manager for some thirty years now and who was evidently getting lazy on the job.
The conference lasted several hours. Before it was terminated Mr. Clancy took me aside and informed me that he was going to make me the boss of the Works. Before putting me into office, however, he was going to ask me as a special favour, and also as a sort of apprenticeship which would stand me in good stead, to work as a special messenger. I would receive the salary of employment manager, but it would be paid me out of a separate account. In short I was to float from office to office and observe the way affairs were conducted by all and sundry. I was to make a little report from time to time as to how things were going. And once in a while, so he suggested, I was to visit him at his home on the q.t. and have a little chat about the conditions in the hundred and one branches of the modernistic Telegraph Company in New York City. In other words I was to be a spy for a few months and after that I was to have the run of the joint. Maybe they’d make me a general manager too one day, or a vice-president. It was a tempting offer, even if it was wrapped up in a lot of horse shit. I said Yes.
In a few months I was sitting at Sunset Place hiring and firing like a demon. It was a slaughter-house, so help me God. The thing was senseless from the bottom up. A waste of men, material and effort. A hideous farce against a backdrop of sweat and misery. But just as I had accepted the spying so I accepted the hiring and firing and all that went with it. I said Yes to everything. If the vice-president decreed that no cripples were to be hired I hired no cripples. If the vice-president said that all messengers over forty-five were to be fired without notice I fired them without notice. I did everything they instructed me to do, but in such a way that they had to pay for it. When there was a strike I folded my arms and waited for it to blow over. But I first saw to it that it cost them a good penny. The whole system was so rotten, so inhuman, so lousy, so hopelessly corrupt and complicated, that it would have taken a genius to put any sense or order into it, to say nothing of human kindness or consideration. I was up against the whole rotten system of American labour, which is rotten at both ends. I was the fifth wheel on the wagon and neither side bad any use for me, except to exploit me. In met, everybody was being exploited– the president and his gang by the unseen powers, the employees by the officials, and so on and around, in and out and through the whole works. From my little perch at “Sunset Place” I had a bird’s eye view of the whole American society. It was like a page out of the telephone book. Alphabetically, numerically, statistically, it made sense. But when you looked at it up close, when you examined the pages separately, or the parts separately, when you examined one lone individual and what constituted him, examined the air he breathed, the life he led, the chances he risked, you saw something so foul and degrading, so low, so miserable, so utterly hopeless and senseless, that it was worse than looking into a volcano. You could see the whole American life–economically, politically, morally, spiritually, artistically, statistically, pathologically. It looked like a grand chancre on a worn-out cock. It looked worse than that, really, because you couldn’t even see anything resembling a cock any more. Maybe in the past this thing had life, did produce something, did at least give a moment’s pleasure, a moment’s thrill. But looking at it from where I sat it looked rottener than the wormiest cheese. The wonder was that the stench of it didn’t carry’em off … I’m using the past tense all the time, but of course it’s the same now, maybe even a bit worse. At least now we’re getting it full stink.
— Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)
See also my post:
“Henry Miller and Dreiser”
— posted by Roger W. Smith
The above downloadable Word document contains an inventory of books by and about Henry Miller in my personal library.
Henry Miller (1891-1980) was an American writer who wrote several of his best known works as an expatriate in Paris in the 1930’s . He was the author of works in various formats, including novels, essays, and travel memoirs, and works about writers whom he admired.
— Roger W. Smith
Henry Miller was a fervent admirer of Sherwood Anderson. The two writers met two or three times, briefly — according to Miller, “in the last year of his [Anderson’s] life.”
In a Paris Review interview, Miller said:
Of all the American writers that I have met, Sherwood Anderson stands out as the one I liked most. Dos Passos was a warm, wonderful chap, but Sherwood Anderson — well, I had been in love with his work, his style, his language, from the beginning. And I liked him as a man — although we were completely at loggerheads about most things, especially America. He loved America, he knew it intimately, he loved the people and everything about America. I was the contrary. But I loved to hear what he had to say about America.
“Henry Miller, The Art of Fiction,” interview by George Wickes, The Paris Review No. 28, Summer-Fall 1962
In his impressionistic travelogue The Colossus of Maroussi, there is a passage by Miller about Anderson:
After the succulent repast at the taverna in Piraeus, … we moved back to the big square in Athens. It was midnight or a little after and the square was still crowded with people. Kastimbalis seemed to divine the spot where his friends were seated. We were introduced to his bosom comrades, George Seferaides and Captain Antoniou of the good ship “Acropolis.” They were soon plying me with questions about America and American writers. Like most educated Europeans they knew more about American literature than I ever will. Antoniou had been to America several times, had walked about the streets of New York, Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco and other ports. The thought of him walking about the streets of our big cities in bewilderment led me to broach the name of Sherwood Anderson whom I always think of as the one American writer of our time who has walked the streets of our American cites as a genuine poet. Since they scarcely knew his name, and since the conversation was already veering towards more familiar ground, namely Edgar Allen Poe, a subject I am weary of listening to, I suddenly became obsessed with the idea of selling them Sherwood Anderson. I began a monologue myself for a change – about writers who walk the streets in America and are not recognized until they are ready for the grave. I was so enthusiastic about the subject that I actually identified myself with Sherwood Anderson. He would probably have been astounded had he heard of the exploits I was crediting him with. I’ve always had a particular weakness for the author of “Many Marriages.” In my worst days in America he was the man who comforted me, by his writings. It was only the other day that I met him for the first time. I found no discrepancy between the man and the writer. I saw in him the born storyteller, the man who can make even the egg triumphant.
As I say, I went on talking about Sherwood Anderson like a blue streak. It was to Capitan Antoniou that I chiefly addressed myself. I remember the look he gave me when I had finished, the look which said: “Sold. Wrap them up, I’ll take the whole set.” Many times since I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of rereading Sherwood Anderson through Antoniou’s eyes. Antoniou is constantly sailing from one island to another, writing his poems as he walks about strange cities at night. Once, a few months later, I met him for a few minutes one evening in the strange port of Herakleion in Crete. He was still thinking about Sherwood Anderson, though his talk was of cargoes and weather reports and water supplies. Once out to sea I could picture him going up to his cabin and, taking a little book from the rack, burying himself in the mysterious life of a nameless Ohio town. The night always made me a little envious of him, envious of his peace and solitude at sea. I envied him the islands he was stopping off at and the lonely walks through silent villages whose names mean nothing to us. To be a pilot was the first ambition I had ever voiced. I liked the idea of being alone in the little house above the deck, steering the ship over its perilous course. To be aware of the weather, to be in it, battling with it, meant everything to me. In Antoniou’s countenance there were always traces of the weather. And in Sherwood Anderson’s writing there are always traces of the weather. I like men who have the weather in their blood. ….
— Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (New York: New Directions, 2010), pp. 31-32
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Sherwood Anderson scholar Claire Bruyère for pointing out this passage to me.
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.book. (This showed a certain appreciation of my intelligence and/or curiosity as well as, perhaps, literary tastes; and what might be viewed as a degree of practical wisdom on my father’s part.)
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, Ralph Colp Jr., 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 [Clipped Wings], 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. A friend of mine, Charles Pierre, 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 Anaïs 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, Dr. Colp made a 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