Henry Miller

By Wendy Moss

This essay was written as a class assignment in SBSC 326: History of the Monterey Bay Area, 10,000 B.C. to Steinbeck, California State University Monterey Bay, Spring Semester 1996.

Henry Miller was born December 26, 1891 in New York, New York. During his first year of life, Miller's family moved to Brooklyn, where the whole of his childhood was spent. In 1909, Miller graduated from high school and entered City College of New York where he stayed for only two months. Not being able to bear the academic routine, Miller went to work at a variety of jobs. Everything from a cab driver to librarian. In 1917, Miller met and married the first of five wives, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, with whom he has one child. Miller took a job with Western Union telegraph service in 1920 where his first endeavor into writing took place.

Miller's boss came to him one day with the idea that someone should write a book about messengers. He proposed something along the lines of "Horatio Alger," what Miller came up with was "Clipped Wings." This is a story of twelve messengers along the lines of Dostoevsky, rather than Horatio Alger. Miller wrote about "gentle souls, insulted and injured, who run amok or suffer violence; the stories are full of bitterness and horror, ending in murder or suicide, usually both" (Wickes 1974:170-192). Miller realized that the work was a failure because he knew nothing of writing, but this endeavor spawned the urge to learn about writing.

Miller worked for the messenger service as a manager for four years until meeting his second wife, June Edith Smith Mansfield. June, a taxi dancer, supported Miller so that he could pursue his artistic love and, at this point, life's dream. In 1928, June saved enough money for the two of them to travel to Europe, giving Miller a taste of what he considered civilized life. Problems with June persuaded Miller to leave for Paris in 1930, where he continued full time with his long and lucrative career as a writer of more than 36 creative and analytical works.

Miller's entrance into the writer's circle began with Tropic of Cancer, which still proves to be Miller's most famous work. Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn chronicle Miller's lives and loves as an expatriate in Paris. They were both originally published in France by Jack Kahane at Obelisk Press in the mid-thirties. When the works were brought to the United States, they spawned a thirty year censorship debate that was eventually won by Miller. Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn were published by Grove Press through the efforts of Barney Rosset. This event is still noted as the first "forced acceptance of banned books in the United States" (Wickes 1974:170-192).

Soon after the publishing of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Miller's other works to date were published in the United States. During this time it was said that "Miller became a legendary character, a kind of folk hero, the Paul Bunyan of literature, larger than life as exile, bohemian, and rebel, the great champion of freedom of expression and other lost causes" (Wickes 1974:170-192). Miller's works became famous and were soon best sellers. Tropic of Cancer sold over two and a half million copies in the first two years of publication, thus earning Miller the comfort to live a life that he had not known as a beggar in the streets of Paris. Reflecting on those days, Miller would tell a story of the last time that he begged. A man dressed for the opera was walking in front of Miller, as he approached the man with the inevitable question:

the man pushed Henry aside rudely and walked on without a word. Then with his back to Miller, he reached into his pockets and threw a handful of change in the mud filled gutter. "I was really degraded, humiliated, you know. But there I was down on my hands and knees, picking up the change and wiping the mud off. Right then and there I swore I'd never beg again and I didn't. I've known it all. Every humiliation, degradation, poverty, starvation" (Kraft 1993:477).

Miller's days in Paris found him in the company of many characters. On his first visit to Europe he met Alfred Perles, a long friendship, documented in Miller's book Quiet Days in Clichy, ensued. Along with Perles, Miller had another close male friend called Michael Fraenkel, with whom he co-authored the book Hamlet. Hamlet is based on the letters of the two men. They made a pack with each other to continue writing letters on a variety of subjects, beginning with Shakespeare's Hamlet. The agreement was based on letters that could not end until, together, they had completed one thousand pages. Both men were avid arguers and had no problem continuing their individual diatribes. Miller's final letter was over one hundred pages long. "Miller found the letter a congenial form, a written monologue, running on about the weather, ideas, books, recent experiences, all loosely linked by the amusing personality of the writer" (Wickes 1974:170-192).

While in Paris, Miller also befriended a woman who was to be a long time lover and occasional benefactor, Anais Nin. Their friendship is ironically documented by Nin rather than Miller. Her diaries which fill a multitude of volumes document social engagements, their love affair and a love affair with Miller's wife, June. These stories were made famous in the 1992 feature film, Henry and June. Although Nin was married they spent several years as lovers and critics of each others work while Miller was in Paris.

Miller left Paris in 1939 after the publication of Tropic of Capricorn. A life long friend whom Miller met in Paris, Lawrence Durell, had many times invited Miller to come to Greece. Now that Miller was out from under the weight of Tropic of Capricorn, he had the freedom to take Durell up on the offer. Miller's six months in Greece were filled with constant celebration until the outbreak of World War II, which prompted his return to the United States. While in Greece Miller wrote what many critics believe to be his finest work of "literature," The Colossus of Maroussi. This is basically a travel book with a bit more. The Colossus of Maroussi conveys a metaphysical insight into the place which Miller considers a "holy land." What Miller tried to achieve with the book was "not archaeology or history, but a feeling of kinship with the men of the past" (Wickes 1974:170-192).

Upon Miller's return to the United States, he decided to travel the country which was the impetus of another travel book, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. "Why is it that in America the great works of art are all Nature's doing?" Miller believed that the majority of people in the United States were all dead, "all but the Negroes, Indians and an occasional nonconformist. The American way of life has created a spiritual and cultural wasteland." While Miller was traveling the United States he happened upon Big Sur where he settled and lived from 1944 to 1963.

When Miller moved to Big Sur he helped establish the area as an artists colony with himself being the "leading prophet," aside from Robinson Jeffers, who had been in the area since 1914. At this time Miller had not quite achieved the fame that would eventually ensue after the publication of Tropic of Cancer, but a great many people made pilgrimages to visit the great "underground" writer that had been banned in the United States. "Pilgrims came from all parts of the country and abroad, so many that eventually he had to leave. It is characteristic of America and this day of public images that Miller should be identified as the monkish Sage of Big Sur" (Wickes 1974:170-192).

Now with an audience, Miller's writing went through a transformation. Miller became more "literary," a word and concept that disgusted him. His thoughts became more spiritual yet, cohesive with form and analysis. Theme began to surface clearly. While in the past his writing had been a pure, stream of conscious type documentation, his writing became clear and the want for an audience dissipated. After so many years of want, the lust for fame left him.

While living in Big Sur, Miller married two more of his eventual five wives, Janina Martha Lepska, with who he had two children, and in 1953, Eve McClure. With his two children, Tony and Valentine, Miller lived on Partington Ridge, also referred to as Anderson's Point. The house was on a plateau two thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean. "About fifty feet from the house, the land simply ended, and it was an abrupt decent to the sea far below." At this place in Miller's life he finished the work that immortalized Big Sur in the world of literature, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch was Miller's Walden. Big Sur conjured up the concept of a utopia for Miller, as Walden had done for Thoreau.

Finally in 1960 it became too much for Miller and his present wife, Eve McClure. The constant visitors and imposing house guests. Their world had taken on a busyness that caused Miller to often stop and think "Where was I?" After traveling around Europe for a year, Miller retired himself to Pacific Palisades in Southern California. Here he left the practice of writing daily and substituted it with painting daily. He still wrote and published occasionally, but writing was no longer the driving force in Miller's life.

The last twenty years of Miller's life, spent in Pacific Palisades, were humbling ones. His body slowly deteriorated, yet his wit and artistic capabilities stayed in tact. Miller spent much of his time reflecting on his turbulent life with interviewers and close friends. When often questioned about writing he has said, "It's a curse. Yes, it's a flame. It owns you. It has possession over you. You are not the master of yourself. You are consumed by this thing. And the books you write. They're not you. They're not me sitting here, this Henry Miller. They belong to someone else. It's terrible. You can never rest. People used to envy me my inspiration. I hate inspiration. It takes you over completely. I could never wait until it passed and I got rid of it" (Kraft 1993:477).

Miller's life ended on June 7, 1980 in his Pacific Palisades home. He was with his caregiver Bill Pickerill, who had lived with Miller for several years. The clearest end for Miller's own life come from his own words, written in The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder:

Perhaps I have not limned his portrait too clearly. But if he exists, if only for the reason that I have imagined him to be. He came from the blue and returns to the blue. He has not perished, he is not lost. Neither will he be forgotten.

Works of Henry Miller:

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