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The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur

The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur

by Arthur Hoyle, James M. Decker

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Henry Miller was one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth-century literature. Better known in Europe than in his native America for most of this career, he achieved international success and celebrity during the 1960s when his banned “Paris” books—beginning with Tropic of Cancer—were published here and judged by the Supreme Court not to be obscene. Until then he had toiled in relative obscurity and poverty. The Unknown Henry Miller recounts Miller’s career from its beginnings in Paris in the 1930s but focuses on his years living in Big Sur, California, from 1944 to 1961, during which he wrote many of his most important books, including The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, married and divorced twice, raised two children, painted watercolors, and tried to live out an aesthetic and personal credo of self-realization.

Written with the cooperation of the Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and other estates, The Unknown Henry Miller quotes extensively from Miller’s correspondence in order to offer the reader direct experience of the author and man. It also draws on material not available to previous biographers, including interviews with Lepska Warren, Miller’s third wife, and revelations from unpublished portions of Anais Nin’s diaries. Behind the “bad boy” image, the author finds a man with devoted friendships, whose challenge of literary sexual taboos was part of a broader assault on the dehumanization of man and commercialization during the postwar years. He puts Miller’s alleged misogyny in the context of his satire of sexual mores in general, and makes the case for restoring this groundbreaking writer to his rightful place in the American literary canon.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628724011
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 03/04/2014
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Arthur Hoyle is an educator, writer, independent filmmaker, and communications professional. His documentary films have won awards and aired on PBS, and he has received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for a documentary script on American social philosopher Thorstein Veblen. He has taught English, coached tennis, and served as an administrator in independent schools. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

Read an Excerpt



"A Writer Is Born."

IN THE SPRING OF 1939, AS THE EUROPEAN POWERS PREPARED FOR WAR, the writer Henry Miller sat down to his typewriter in his Paris apartment at Villa Seurat and composed a five-page, single-spaced letter to his American friend Huntington Cairns. Miller, age forty-seven, had been living in Paris for nine years. He had come there in flight from a failed life in America in a desperate bid to find himself as a writer. Now, as he made preparations for what he hoped would be an extended sabbatical from writing, during which he intended to travel to Greece and points east, he decided to recapitulate for a trusted friend all that he had accomplished during the period of his voluntary exile from his homeland.

His choice of correspondent for this letter might at first glance seem odd. Huntington Cairns was a thirty-five-year-old lawyer who lived in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was a partner in a prominent law firm. In 1934, the same year Miller's controversial novel Tropic of Cancer was published in Paris, Cairns was appointed a special legal advisor to the Customs Bureau of the United States Treasury Department. In that capacity, he served as the official US censor, advising the bureau on the application of the obscenity standard under the Tariff Act of 1930. Miller's notorious novel had been seized by customs officials in 1934 and declared obscene by a US district court.

In addition to his professional training in the law, Cairns was also a serious student of literature who wrote essays and book reviews and cultivated relationships with leading literary figures of his day. This probably explains why the critic H. L. Mencken, who wrote for the Baltimore Sun, had forwarded to Cairns the copy of Cancer he had received from Miller. Although the book was banned in the United States and in England, Miller sent copies to prominent writers and critics in both countries in an effort to establish the book's reputation as serious literature.

Informed by Mencken that Cairns had read and admired Cancer, Miller wrote to Cairns in May 1936 announcing the imminent publication of another controversial book, Black Spring, and offering to send it to him. A few months later, Cairns and his wife, Florence, were in Paris, and the two men met. Over the next several years, they corresponded frequently, primarily about strategies for obtaining reviews of Miller's work that could be used to rebut the charge of obscenity and give Miller access to the American publishing market. Cairns also made arrangements for a show of Miller's watercolors in Washington, DC. By the time Miller wrote Cairns in April 1939, he considered him to be one of only two Americans he could count as friends, the other being his boyhood Brooklyn chum, the painter Emil Schnellock.

Miller's letter to Cairns begins on a gloomy note. War now seems certain and his own future cloudy. Fearing German bombardment and invasion, he plans to leave France. He has accepted an invitation to visit the Greek island of Corfu and stay with his friend, the English writer Lawrence Durrell and his wife, Nancy. As usual, Miller is without funds and has had to cobble together his travel money from an assortment of friends, admirers, and advances on book sales. Worried that he may be separated from his personal papers, or even killed in a surprise air raid, he feels the need to produce for posterity a brief account of what the Paris years have meant to him as a writer and as a man.

To this end, Miller sketches first the years of his early manhood in Brooklyn and New York, years of restless questing and failed romantic relationships as he sought his true vocation. He describes his origins as a writer and his first halting attempts at novel writing, his false starts. As the formative influences on his world outlook and aesthetic sensibility, he identifies the anarchism of Emma Goldman, whom he met in California during his early wanderings; the doctrine of acceptance that he found in Zen Buddhism and the teachings of LaoTse; the uncompromising explorations of the human soul that he discovered in the works of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky; and the writings of Knut Hamsun and August Strindberg, which he admired greatly — all influences from the Old World of Europe and Asia. He then goes on to sum up his accomplishments as a writer during the decade that he has been living in Paris, emphasizing his debt to Ana's Nin, who gave him both financial and emotional support as he wrote several of his major works. Finally, Miller concludes by peering into the future, anticipating his return to America as war erupts in Europe and predicting for himself a life isolated from the mainstream of American culture.

The letter thus provides a layered snapshot of Miller at the moment of his maturation as a writer, which is where the present account of his life begins. Describing his artistic birth, it outlines the material — his life story during his formative years — that will occupy him for much of the remainder of his writing career as he labors through his magnum opus, The Rosy Crucifixion, the story of his spiritual death and rebirth. The letter also contains the seeds of themes that Miller will treat in many of his essay collections in years to come. Before tracing the path that would eventually take Miller to Big Sur, let's explore in detail his self-portrait as a writer at this decisive juncture in his life.

MILLER DATES HIS ORIGINS AS A WRITER to September 1924 when, at the urging of his second wife, June, he quit his job as personnel manager of Western Union in order to write full time. But he tells Cairns that he actually began writing in 1912, when he was twenty-one and working in his father's tailor shop on Fifth Avenue in New York. His early writing took the form of long, humorous letters to friends, a practice he continued throughout his life. (Miller estimated in 1939 that he had already written twenty-five thousand letters to twenty-five hundred different people.) In 1922, when he was married to his first wife, Beatrice, and was the father of a two-year-old daughter named Barbara, Miller wrote his first book, Clipped Wings, a seventy-five-thousand-word novel about twelve messengers under his employ at Western Union. (The book was never published and the manuscript has been lost.)

During the period from 1924 to 1930, he wrote two other novels, Moloch, or, This Gentile World, and Crazy Cock, both of which he brought with him to Paris hoping to publish. Crazy Cock was turned down for publication and Moloch was lost. (Each of these works was published posthumously, Crazy Cock in 1991 and Moloch in 1992.) Listing his literary output since coming to Paris, he expresses regret that it isn't more. In the fifteen years since he began writing full time, he has never been able to earn a living from his work and only recently has gained acceptance for his shorter pieces from literary magazines, which, when they pay at all, pay a pittance.

Miller begins the list of his Paris books with Tropic of Cancer, his signature novel. "In 1931 I began Tropic of Cancer and wrote it over about three or four times ... It was published in 1934. Aller Retour New York published in 1935 and Black Spring in 1936. Then Max and the White Phagocytes and now Tropic of Capricorn, volume one." He mentions several other works, some never finished, others never published, as well as Hamlet, his lengthy and tedious correspondence with Michael Fraenkel over Shakespeare's play that Fraenkel published in 1939 through his Carrefour Press.

All of the major works mentioned in the letter to Cairns were published by Jack Kahane through his Obelisk Press. Kahane was an Englishman who wrote erotica under a pen name and was publishing in partnership with a Frenchman who owned the press. The manuscript of Tropic of Cancer reached him through William Bradley, the preeminent agent for literary exiles living in Paris whose clients included Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Kahane was thrilled when he read the manuscript, telling Miller, "I've been waiting a long time for a book like yours to fall into my hands. There's smut, there's titillation, and then there's what you've written: the most terrible, the most sordid, the most truthful book I've ever read. It makes Joyce's Ulysses taste like lemonade."

Tropic of Cancer, Miller's first published work, established his distinctive voice and style and immediately branded him as an outlaw writer. Like all of his Paris books, it opens a window onto his imagination and aesthetic sensibility at the time when, according to many critics of his work, he was at the height of his artistic powers, writing from the edge of the world with fierce disdain while boldly experimenting with form, style, and content. The novel chronicles the picaresque adventures of the narrator (Miller) as he wanders the streets of Paris encountering an odd assortment of eccentric characters that he presents in a tone of affectionate contempt for their pathetic attempts at living. All of the characters are based on people Miller knew and in many cases depended upon for his day-to-day survival.

The book begins with Boris (Michael Fraenkel), a small Jewish writer- philosopher who shared his apartment with Miller for a time and encouraged his writing. When Boris is introduced to us on the first page, he is lice-infested. Miller is shaving his friend's armpits, while Boris expounds on "the weather," his metaphor for the climate of the times. "The weather will continue bad," he says. "There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. The cancer of time is eating us away." Thus Miller sets up the terms for his presentation of modern life: on the one hand, it is a time of desperation and sickness of soul. But on the other hand, there are more pressing, immediate concerns that demand attention; Boris is lousy.

The novel swings between these two poles of absurdity: at one extreme the calamity of a corrupt civilization that time is eating away, at the other modern man, comically degraded, no longer even capable of heroic struggle and reduced to a slavish obedience to his basic instincts. Yet Miller will suggest that in his basic instincts man may yet find the path to individual salvation, a path that passes through a purifying cosmic howl that releases him from conventional attachments. Miller's own dilemma is to be the perpetual artist- outsider, whose insight into the debased world isolates him from it and from his fellow humans.

Miller combined the two facets of modern life, the individual and the societal, into the image of Paris as a whore. Only through the use of obscene language and imagery could he express the full extent of his rage against his dilemma (the artist-individual as perpetual outsider), which he saw as also the dilemma of modern man. Miller writes of his mistress city: "Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing, you can't wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked." A few pages later, he bores further into this image in a type of language that appears frequently in the novel and that gave censors the ammunition they needed to ban his book. "When I look down into the fucked-out cunt of [this] whore I feel the whole world beneath me, a world tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper's skull. If there were a man who dared say all that he thought of this world there would not be left him a square foot of ground to stand on." Miller here acknowledges the isolation that his searing vision of the modern reality has brought, and he accepts it. "The task which the artist implicitly sets himself is to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life."

Having assumed the role of the artist-outsider who carries the burden of truth, Miller offers us an alternate image of woman, woman transformed by his imagination into an embodiment of a higher, cosmic reality that blots out the ugliness of the man-made world:

The earth is not an arid plateau of health and comfort, but a great sprawling female with velvet torso that swells and heaves with ocean billows; she squirms beneath a diadem of sweat and anguish. Naked and sexed, she rolls among the clouds in the violet light of the stars. All of her, from her generous breasts to her gleaming thighs, blazes with furious ardor. She moves among the seasons and the years with a grand whoopla that seizes the torso with paroxysmal fury, that shakes the cobwebs out of the sky; she subsides on her pivotal orbits with volcanic tremors ... Love and hate, despair, pity, rage disgust — what are these amidst the fornications of the planets? What is war, disease, cruelty, terror, when night presents the ecstasy of myriad blazing suns? What is this chaff we chew in our sleep if it is not the remembrance of fang-whorl and star cluster.

It is to an awareness of this cosmic dimension, and the potential it brings for a higher form of life, that Miller wishes to lead us through his language. But he insists that we can arrive at this awareness only through facing and accepting the most fundamental aspects of our being. He says with Hermes Trismegistus and other great mystics, "as above, so below." And the great irony of Miller's work is that the path to personal transformation that he found through his gritty experiences on the debauched streets of Paris was labeled obscene by the society whose individual members were in such desperate need of transformation.

This irony was not lost on Huntington Cairns, who wrote to Miller after their meeting in Paris, "I know of no other writer in English who is more naturally a novelist or who writes with anything approaching your power." But Cairns had to advise Miller that the prevailing legal standard for obscenity in America would prevent Cancer being read by the very audience for which it was intended.

Miller's sexual relations, and those of his friends, are a constant preoccupation of the novel, second in importance only to his perpetual quest for food and shelter. Miller has countless affairs, casual encounters, and transactions with prostitutes, which he relates with cynical coarseness, and he describes with sardonic amusement the trysts and fornications of his friends, some of which he witnesses as a bemused spectator offering words of encouragement or consolation. The cumulative effect of these scenes, beyond their bawdy surface humor, is to expose the hopelessness of finding love in the modern world, and to expose it without sentimentality, in a spirit of jaunty irreverence, as though even to wish for genuine human contact or sincerity of feeling between a man and a woman is a waste of emotion and a sign of spiritual weakness. The only exception to this pattern is his treatment of his love for his second wife, June, who appears intermittently in the novel as Mona, making unannounced visits from New York that upset his equilibrium and deflate his clownish attitude toward life.

These sexual escapades of Miller's friends, devoid of any human affection or meaning, bitter in their characterization of women, mocking in their treatment of men, have their origins in Miller's personal life. As a youth, Miller hated his mother for her rigid conventionality, her harshness and humorlessness, her henpecking of his father, her abuse of his half-witted sister, Lauretta. His hatred of her never abated. To avoid being drafted into military service during World War One, Miller married his piano teacher, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, an older woman, and had a daughter, Barbara, with her. As he writes in his letter to Cairns, "From the day we hitched up it was a running battle." When Miller met June, his second wife, in a dance hall on Broadway, he abandoned Beatrice and Barbara and avoided contact with them for over thirty years. He suffered torments at the hands of June, whose constant "appointments" with "male admirers" humiliated him and whose lesbian relationship with a woman she brought home one day to their Greenwich Village apartment unmanned him and made him feel like a fool. His interest in prostitutes, his tendency to degrade all women to the status of whore, is clarified in a letter he wrote to his lover Ana's Nin in the summer of 1933: "One day I saw a whore sitting in a café ... As I rounded the corner, leaving her out of sight, suddenly it occurred to me how this woman resembled three women — a composite. And who were they, do you think? June, my first wife, and my mother ... What should I say was the chief ingredient of this composite? Scorn."


Excerpted from "The Unknown Henry Miller"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Arthur Hoyle.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword James M. Decker xi

Introduction xv

Chapter 1 The Paris Years 1

Chapter 2 Interlude in Greece 32

Chapter 3 Adrift in America 37

Chapter 4 Settling in Big Sur 71

Chapter 5 A Writer in Big Sur 91

Chapter 6 Marriage and Family 105

Chapter 7 A Year of Crisis 129

Chapter 8 The Rosy Crucifixion 154

Chapter 9 Europe Beckons 182

Chapter 10 Farewell to Big Sur 237

Chapter 11 Celebrity 267

Chapter 12 The Henry Miller Legacy 294

Appendix A "Notes on H. M." June Lancaster 313

Appendix B Horoscope of Henry Miller Conrad Moricand 315

Appendix C "O Lake of Light" Henry Miller 321

Appendix D Academic Survey Findings 323

Acknowledgments 336

A Note on Sources 343

Notes 345

Sources 350

Index 371

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