by Perry Meisel
Henry Miller: A Life. By Robert Ferguson. Illustrated. 397 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.
The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. By Mary V. Dearborn. Illustrated. 368 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $24.95.
Somewhere between art and ideology, Henry Miller's contributions to 20th-century culture are undeniable, chief among them the free speech that we now take for granted in literature. Even before the first publication of Tropic of Cancer in France in 1934 (its notorious obscenity kept it illegal in the United States until 1961), Miller had also perfected one tradition of bohemian mythology that made poverty and exile guarantees of professional integrity. Miller's literary influence is real enough, too, principally his "irrigation" of American prose, as Norman Mailer described it in 1976, his establishment of a certain literary tone. The complaints are familiar as well: that Miller is a sexist, an anti-Semite and an antistylist, whose historical role in the liberation of sexuality and self-expression is more than offset by the virulence such a struggle inspired.
This is the centennial year of Miller's birth. The publication of two new biographies - together with the publication by Grove Weidenfeld this fall of Miller's third novel, Crazy Cock (Tropic of Cancer, his fourth novel, was the first to be published) - should provide some finer account of what we may owe to Miller's life and work. The distinction between life and work, however, is a problem in Miller's case, writing as he did in an autobiographical vein that thwarts the contrast between art and experience. This makes the biographer's job particularly difficult, a difficulty that Miller scholarship has tended to ignore because of too uncritical a sympathy for its subject. Both new biographies, however, maintain a distance from Miller, though in different ways, each one calculating the discrepancies between Miller's own narratives and an almost endless abundance of published and unpublished source material in order to sort out fact from fiction. Robert Ferguson's Henry Miller: A Life is irreverent, although Mr. Ferguson sometimes borrows his sarcasm from Miller himself. "If there is one thing worse than having an artistic temperament," he quotes Miller as saying, "it is thinking you have one." With Miller, the difference between the two is never entirely clear. Mr. Ferguson, the author of a previous biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun, one of Miller's own literary heroes, renders Miller as a crafty liar and buffoon, revealing traits of his personality for which he sought justification in art.
Born in 1891 to hard-working parents, Miller was a precocious child, finding relief from domestic surveillance in the streets of Brooklyn. His mother's Germanic strictness and his father's passivity provided the psychic polarities that would structure his life for almost 90 years. Mr. Ferguson is especially good at filling in the historical context of Miller's boyhood, the turn-of-the-century cultural climate that featured Teddy Roosevelt as America's rough-and-ready hero, the promoter of a cult of manly athleticism designed to respond to a medical climate that regarded masturbation as detrimental to physical health. The Portnovian Miller enrolled at City College in 1909, but Spenser's Faerie Queen did him in during his first semester. Quitting school, he began a round of dreary and menial jobs, meanwhile ogling burlesque and reading Dreiser, Jack London, Frank Norris and, of course, Whitman.
Miller was already nursing literary ambitions when he succumbed to his mother's wish that he join his father's tailoring business in Manhattan. He later talked his way into a job he actually held for five years at Western Union, supervising and streamlining its messenger service. By now Miller had married for the first time (there would be five wives in all and three children, two daughters and a son), although he was also frequenting the city's dance halls. There he met June Smith, a dime-a-dance hostess who encouraged him to be an artist and who became the subject of much of his writing. June introduced Miller to the world of Greenwich Village in 1923, a context that Henry Miller: A Life also brings to life. With a bohemian atmosphere swirling about him - and living with June in a series of cheap or borrowed lodgings - Miller began to write again. In 1922, he had written Clipped Wings, a book now rejected and forgotten. With June, however, he had the strength to complete Moloch, then Crazy Cock, although he signed them in June's name. He did so to allow her to collect money for the manuscripts from one of her numerous male patrons who believed her to be a writer and had offered to support her while she worked on a novel. These early manuscripts received harrowing responses from the friends and editors to whom Miller showed them.
With none of the books published and with no real prospects, Miller moved to Paris in 1930. June shuttled between Paris and New York. Miller blossomed. In 1931, he met Anaïs Nin. In 1934, he finished Tropic of Cancer. Mr. Ferguson less than adequately describes the nature of this presumable artistic breakthrough. Tropic of Cancer cleared the deadness from Miller's prose by using a first-person narrator skilled at bestowing visceral metaphors upon inanimate things in order to render their feel and movement; due process meant assigning machine metaphors to living things, including sex and its component parts. The result was both a freer and a more galvanizing style than that of the earlier books. Even if Miller used more, not less, poetic language to do so, this was the irrigation job on the literary sentence for which he is supposedly responsible.
Tropic of Cancer was published by the Obelisk Press in Paris in September 1934, financed by Nin with money supplied by Otto Rank, the Austrian psychoanalyst and writer. Miller's knack for self-promotion prompted him to send the book to Pound, Eliot and others, receiving their endorsements soon after the novel was printed. Tropic of Cancer and the books that followed, Black Spring (1936) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), earned him an underground reputation, but not much cash. To raise money he began peddling his letters, watercolors, and manuscripts to friends and collectors, with greater success than his father had ever peddled suits. The "religion of instinct," as Mr. Ferguson calls Miller's doctrine of spontaneity - what Miller and his friend Alfred Perlès dubbed the New Instinctivism - had won out over his old, bad writing and given rise to a growing cluster of fans. Miller settled in Big Sur, California, after the war had driven him out of France, and moved to Los Angeles in 1963.
Mary Dearborn's version of Miller in The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller (the book's title comes from Tropic of Cancer) emphasizes more than Mr. Ferguson's biography Miller's depression in these later years, probably the result of his growing awareness of the contradictions that beset him. The man who loathed commercialism in art had always been an expert at privately merchandising both his reputation and his relics. By the same stroke, having money and real fame now bothered him, too, since he could no longer pose as the impoverished and neglected genius. Ms. Dearborn's keenness for this kind of paradox suggests the decidedly interpretive nature of her book, a considerably more exciting account of Miller's life than Mr. Ferguson's, although it fails to complete what it promises.
Ms. Dearborn's perspective on Miller's childhood is especially rich, since it is a feminist and mildly psychoanalytic one. According to her, Miller is important, not surprisingly, because he is the very paradigm of modern male sexuality in literature. Miller's mother is not just strict but downright abusive; his docile father is inclined to homosexuality. Henry becomes "conflicted" and is required to "compensate." Though sex, according to Dearborn, is often an indifferent factor in Miller's writing, Miller's later proclivity for sharing women and feeling ambivalent about it (an endless theme in his prose) signals the homoeroticism at the root of the patriarchal attitude that Miller embodies. Ms. Dearborn, the author of Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture and Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey, takes Miller's complicated anti-Semitism seriously, adjudging it, like his sexism, to be compensatory, a response to the takeover of his boyhood Williamsburg by the flood of immigrant Jews. Once the figure of June appears, however, her interpretive balloon sags. Ms. Dearborn cannot account for her. Henry is June's "pimp," plain and simple.
Ms. Dearborn's energy returns when she takes up Miller's literary career. She sharpens our sense of the birth of Miller's literary style in Paris, focusing on his discovery of the "conversational quality that the clanking prose of Moloch and Crazy Cock sorely needed." As a principle, the spontaneous mode - Miller's stand "against thinking," as Ms. Dearborn puts it - compensated for his increasing hatred of literature, a hatred that came originally simply from the fact that he was, as his early works show, "no good at it." Miller may still be the familiar writer-as-outlaw, but Ms. Dearborn is, mercifully, less inclined than Mr. Ferguson to take Miller's "esthetic of spontaneity," in Mr. Ferguson's phrase, with a straight face, noting, for example, his immersion in Henry James and Walter Pater, and his careful construction of a persona on the Left Bank. Miller's Instinctivism found a perfect audience in Nin. Though personally charming and soft, Miller was also lewd and raucous. Disdaining the rudeness that accompanied Miller's buffoonery, Nin also loved it, just as the compensating Miller loved Nin's "icy hauteur." What each lacked, the other supplied.
This fall's publication of Crazy Cock, which Miller finished in Paris in 1931, will show both how much and how little progress Miller made in the passage from failure to infamy. A third-person tale based on his fumbling ménage à trois with June and Jean Kronski, the lesbian artist with whom June fell in love in 1926, Crazy Cock is a peripatetic, diarylike montage of Village life whose habits of style prefigured those of the later Miller despite the difference in tone and flow. Crazy Cock is clogged, bombastic, contrived, so self-conscious that it is unconscious. Miller had not yet discovered the anti-esthetic stance of Tropic of Cancer that gave his writing jump and nerve. But the propensity for windiness and the use of flying bricks for metaphors is what makes the Miller of Crazy Cock continuous with the Miller of the Tropics. To write, Miller always required an air of the literary, and Crazy Cock supplies the blueprint.
In the retrospect of 1991, Miller is no longer unmannered; he is too mannered. This quality Miller shares with his colleague Nin, whose Diary is charming - like Miller's own writing - because of its preciosity, not despite it. Miller strains for literary effect, even in the breezy Tropics, though it is a kind of effect that he refines, including making the strain somehow ennobling, testimony to the suffering a writer endures, not so much from experience as from the burden of past literature. It is Mr. Ferguson who shows the defensive reason. Miller saw life from the start in terms of his favorite literary heroes, especially the heroes of Dostoyevsky and Hamsun. Miller was always, argues Mr. Ferguson, "identifying people he met with characters from books." Instinctivism, spontaneity, buffoonery, all were necessary to repress the active estheticism at the very heart of the real life that Miller like to contrast with "literature." Despite Miller's declarations of irony in Tropic of Capricorn, this wish to separate what cannot be separated, especially to separate art from life, is the real irony of his writing and Nin's alike. Experience was interesting to them because it reminded them of the books they read and the films they saw; they thought, however, that it was because their naturalness allowed them to live more intensely than other people did. They got their estheticism backwards. They mandated the assumption that anything that happens to you is interesting if you write it down in an energetic or poetic manner. We are still suffering the effects of that decree.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, June 23, 1991