Henry Miller - On the Death Anniversary of Literary Anarchist
What could be the necessity of anarchy in literature? Literature, after all, has always bestowed freedom on writers. One could write about anything in this world and get away with it.
Or so the story goes.
A writer may not have any dearth of topics to choose from but governments have a list. This watertight list ensures that people are not subjected to vile books, or god forbid, any book which could hold a mirror to the decayed moral fabric of the world. And so we have books like The Satanic Verses, Beloved, Women in Love, and Tropic of Cancer. Closer home, we see how Manto and Chughtai were charged with obscenity for their work.
Humans are strange creatures. They derive as much pleasure from morbidity as they do from life itself. However, seeing a reflection of perhaps their deepest desires is not something humans are prone to admit.
Therefore, Henry Miller was at the heart of controversies for his works throughout his career.
Born on 26th December 1891, Henry Valentine Miller was an American writer whose novels were particularly candid about sex and thus deemed to be obscene. His corpus consists of autobiographical novels, a rebellion against age-old literary conventions. The stream of consciousness technique, sexual frankness, reflection, and character study make up Miller’s body of work. Miller’s novels were banned in the US for their pornographic nature. It was not till 1961 that America would lift the ban on the publication and sale of Miller’s books.
Henry Miller died on 7th June 1980 in the Pacific Palisades, California. We remember him today on his 41st death anniversary.
“All through modern times it seems to be expected of the artist that he be a martyr, first as a failure, then as a success. One doesn’t know which heaven or which hell is preferable. One has no choice.”
About the Author - Who was Henry Miller?
Henry Miller was born to German parents, Heinrich Miller and Louise Marie in Yorkville, NYC. Louise Marie was from the north and Miller’s father was from Bavaria, a tailor by profession. Miller grew up in Brooklyn as a child, an experience which he records in his novel Black Spring, in 1936. Miller had one sister, Lauretta.
Miller attended the Eastern District High School in Williamsburg after finishing his elementary school. His family stayed behind in Bushwick. Miller enrolled himself in the City College of New York. He attended college for one semester. According to an article by his daughter Valentine, Miller “tried working in his father’s tailor shop, here he developed his love for fine clothes. He was always a dapper dresser.”
Miller worked at the Western Union from 1920 to 1924. This came soon after his marriage to his first wife Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, in 1017. The couple gave birth to a daughter, Barbara, born in 1919. The couple divorced in 1923.
Miller had already been working on his first novel during his years at the Western Union in New York. In 1922, he finished his first novel Clipped Wings, even though the novel was never published. However, Miller might have recycled the material for his other works. Clipped Wings narrated the story of twelve Western Union messengers. According to Miller himself, it was “a long book and probably a very bad one.”
While still being married to Beatrice, Miller met the dancer Juliet Edith Smerth, also known by her stage name June Mansfield, in 1923. They married in 1924 and he left his job with Western Union to invest more time in his writing. June would also go on to finance Miller’s trip to Paris, to help him realize his literary career. This period in Miller’s life is recorded in The Rosy Crucifixion.
Miller’s second novel, Moloch: or, This Gentile World was written between 1927 and 1928. Allegedly, a rich old admirer of June, Roland Freedman was paying June to write the novel. She would share Miller’s work instead. This novel was published posthumously, in the year 1992. Moloch was an account of Miller’s relationship with his first wife Beatrice and his experience as a manager of the Western Union.
A third novel, based on the relationship between June and the artist Marion also went unpublished. The novel was initially called Lovely Lesbians, Crazy Cock. Miller had suspected that his wife was in a relationship with Marion, renamed Jean Kronski by June. Kronski lived with the Millers from 1926 to 1927, and went to Paris with June, leaving Henry behind. June however returned after some months, after arguments with Kronski. Kronski committed suicide three years later, in 1930.
In 1928, financed by June's admirer Freedman, Miller went to Paris with his wife. Two years later he moved to Paris without June. It was there that he began working on Tropic of Cancer: "I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!"
Miller’s years in Paris were marked by financial problems. However, this changed when he met the writer Anaïs Nin. Nin and Hugh Guiler would finance Miller throughout the 1930s. Miller and Nin became lovers and the latter financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer. Three years later, in 1934, June divorced Miller by proxy in Mexico City.
Nin wrote about her relationship with Henry and June in her journals. The first volume covering a span of three years was published in 1966.
Miller was hired as a proofreader for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune in 1932. He received this opportunity owing to his friend Alfred Perelès. Miller would submit his own articles under the guise of Perelès. Paris would become a milestone for Miller, as he connected with influential writers. Miller was also influenced by the French Surrealists, which would become evident in his own works.
Miller published his first novel in 1934, at the age of 42 while still living in Paris. It would be more than 25 years before its publication in his native land. However, Miller's books gained reputation swiftly as they were smuggled into America. Black Spring (1936), Tropic of Cancer (1934), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) were banned in the US. The Cosmological Eye would become Miller's first book to be published in America, in 1939. The book comprised a collection of prose, which had originally been a part of his 1938 Black Spring and Max and the White Phagocytes.
Miller had travelled across the world - France, Greece, Big Sur, Beverly Glen, and the Pacific Palisades. Inspired by his visit to Greece, he wrote The Colossus of Maroussi.
Miller married and divorced five times. He married his third wife, Janina Martha Lepska in 1944. The couple had two children, Tony and Valentine. Lepska and Miller divorced in 1952. The following year Miller married Eve McClure, an artist. This marriage lasted for nearly 8 years before they divorced in 1960. Eve died six years later in 1966, allegedly of alcoholism.
In 1967, Miller married the Japanese-born singer Hoki Tokuda. He also signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge to protest against the funding of the Vietnam War. Miller wrote a chapbook - a small publication titled ‘On Turning Eighty’, in 1972. Turning Eighty had only 200 copies published and contains three essays.
“If at eighty you're not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin' and keepin' power.”
Miller and Tokuda’s marriage ended in divorce in 1977. He died in 1981, in Pacific Palisades, of cardiovascular complications. Miller was 88. His body was cremated. The ashes were shared by his children Tony and Valentine.
Recommended Works of Henry Miller
Miller has been praised and criticized in equal measures by critics. George Orwell considered him to be one of the major modern writers. Orwell wrote in his 1940 essay "Inside the Whale":
“Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past.”
Henry Miller was one of the literary figures criticized by Kate Millett in her seminal work Sexual Politics, published in 1970. Millett calls Miller, Freud, Mailer, and D H Lawrence "counterrevolutionary sexual politicians." She argued that Miller's texts had been directed for a male reader and so used titillation to create excitement in the reader. The portrayal of both women and Jews is dismal, as most of the description reads like sexual assault. (TW: sexual assault).
"It happened so quickly that she didn't have time to rebel or even to pretend to rebel."
The language used by Miller to describe women is deeply misogynistic. Considering how he wrote of his own life, the protagonists in his novels sound particularly diabolical and problematic.
However, some critics suggest that Miller's portrayal of women could also be read as a feminist portrayal. They have pointed out that Anaïs Nin, a feminist, was also a fan of Miller's works. She supported Miller through his career in Paris and became his lover. It cannot be denied today that the consent of women in Miller's books is questionable. The sex scenes border on assault and can be triggering to read for some readers.
Miller’s books were a source of inspiration to the writers of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac was particularly influenced by Miller. Kerouac was also the only Beat writer that Miller ever cared for. After his return to America, he stopped fighting for his image, even though he did not want to be portrayed as an outlaw writer of raunchy sex scenes.
Throughout his career, Miller continued to produce prose pieces, sometimes in the form of stories, more often as novels. In 1959, Miller penned what he called a most singular story - ‘The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder’.
Miller’s self-revelation to his readers was one of the attractions of his prose. It was deeply personal and touched upon topics of life and love. Even today, Miller’s words are frequently quoted by enthusiasts.
“I am so thoroughly healthy and empty. No dreams, no desires. I am like the luscious deceptive fruit which hangs on the Californian trees. One more ray of sun and I will be rotten.”
Some recommended works of Henry Miller:
Tropic of Cancer
Henry Miller considered himself to be a ‘bohemian’ and the semi-autobiographical Tropic of Cancer revolves around his bohemian life in Paris. It is a text on the human condition, more so on the experience of a struggling writer. The book has recurring themes of music and dance and is hailed as the cornerstone of modern literature. Most modernist writers hailed the greatness of Tropic of Cancer. Ezra Pound claimed: “At last an unprintable book that is fit to read.”
2. The Rosy Crucifixion
The Rosy Crucifixion is a semi-autobiographical trilogy written by Henry Miller. It consists of the novels Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus. It acts as a document of Miller’s life from his childhood in Brooklyn to his first departure to Paris in 1928. It consists of long philosophical discussions on self, marriage, love, and happiness. Miller reportedly ended up plotting The Rosy Crucifixion all night in about fifty typewritten pages.
3. Quiet Days in Clichy
This book narrates the story of an American expatriate in Clinchy. Quiet Days in Clichy is divided into two parts. The first half consists of Joey’s experiences as a struggling writer who lives with his roommate Carl. The duo struggle with finances and relationships. The second part is called Mara-Marignon and describes the love affair of Carl with the married woman Elaine, and Joey’s relationship with Mara, a prostitute. It is a novella written during Miller’s years as a struggling writer in suburban Paris. He lived with his roommate, Alfred Perles in a small shared apartment. The novella has been adapted for the screen twice.
4. A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin Henry Miller, 1932-1953
While this might not be a creative pursuit of Miller’s, this book is still a beautiful read. It follows the intimacy between Anais and Henry, which was first seen between Henry and June. Charged with emotional intelligence and candour, it gives a glimpse into the lives of both controversial writers.
5. The Colossus of Maroussi
This book is based on Henry Miller’s trip to Greece, accompanied by his friend, Lawrence Durrell in 1939. The book is particularly praised for its descriptions and is considered to be one of the best travel books in English. The Colossus of Maroussi is also read as a memoir of Miller.
6. Black Spring
Black Spring is dedicated to Anais Nin. It was written in 1932-1933 and consists of ten short stories. The blurb of Black Spring states: “Continuing the subversive self-revelation begun in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller takes readers along a mad, free-associating journey from the damp grime of his Brooklyn youth to the sun-splashed cafes and squalid flats of Paris… In this seductive technicolor swirl of Paris and New York, he captures like no one else the blending of people and the cities they inhabit.”
In addition to these books, Miller also wrote “Henry Miller On Writing,” several short stories and unpublished novels. He also wrote two more memoirs, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Beach (1957) and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). Miller has also appeared on screen, often portraying himself in documentaries. Miller was an ardent painter and loved to create watercolour paintings as a hobby.
Henry Miller is not a writer that can appeal to everyone. Most of his works have polarizing criticisms. However, he is still one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. It was Miller’s case against the State which led the Supreme Court of America to modify its rules for obscenity in literature. In the Miller Vs the California case, it was established that a work would be considered obscene only if “taken as a whole, (it) lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
It takes a particular appetite to read Miller, as his descriptions can often be stomach-turning and vile. It is no wonder that the government of America had banned his books, as most of the content does not hold mass appeal. That being said, one cannot condone the practice of banned books as it tears the democratic fabric of the nation.
- Debaduti Dey
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