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Miller's Tale: Henry Hits 100

January 06, 1991|RALPH B. SIPPER | Sipper is a Santa Barbara-based rare-book dealer and book critic. and

This year marks the centenary of Henry Miller's birth. Throughout the year, various events and publications will celebrate the life and work of this most American of authors who left the land of his birth in order to discover himself. Like Huck Finn lighting out for the Territory, Miller rejected a civilized ambience he found utterly depressing for an earthier, more simple one. In an age where practical champions of science appeared to be crowding out spiritual expression, he chose literally to beg for bread rather than be just one more three-piece suit competing for material success.

Miller located his muse in post-expatriate Europe during the Depression, turning up there penniless and disillusioned just as Hemingway and company were picking up their coats; for them the party seemed over. For Miller it was a beginning; the first day of the rest of his life. Remember, he was already 43 years old when "Tropic of Cancer," his first and most important book, was published in Paris in 1934. At an age when American men are in mid-career, Miller was just beginning to reconstitute himself from social misfit to literary innovator.

"Cancer's" very first page sets a euphoric tone as its confident narrator announces: "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive." This first-person voice employed by Miller to serve as his fictional alter ego speaks to us with immediacy and verisimilitude. It is an irrepressibly optimistic voice, one that remains cheery in the face of absolute poverty. Nothing can defeat this man--not hunger pangs nor marauding bed lice nor indifference to his writing. The writer Alfred Perles, an intimate of Miller's during this period, remembers him thus: "In those days his friends walked in his shadow and even his shadow was warm."

What accounted for the radical change in Miller? The emergent charisma? Back in cold New York he had been a round peg stuck in the square hole of a stifling existence that imprisoned his soul. Stultifying jobs sapped his energy and inhibited his writing. The first of his five wives divorced him. A perfectionist mother, whom he could never please, sniped at him constantly, castigating his noncomforming life style. The desultory writing he was producing satisfied nobody, least of all himself.

Most crucially, in the immediate period before he abandoned America, Miller was being alternately elevated and brought low by his second wife, June Mansfield, who, of the many women in his life, was most dominant. June, in support of Henry's ambitions to write, encouraged him to stay home while she worked long hours in dance halls and speak-easies, teasing wealthy old men out of their dollars. Some of Miller's earliest literary efforts were ghost-written pieces that June signed and then hawked to her sugar daddies, staying out all night in the process and making Henry furiously jealous. By the time he arrived in Paris, Miller was an emotional mess.

Once there, he was reborn on the spot, it seems. To paraphrase Peter Weiss' Marat, Miller pulled himself up by his own hair, turned himself inside out, and saw the world with fresh eyes. Miller's revolution, though, was not a political one. It was the wedding of his life and his art. Actual and imagined experiences became indistinguishable from each other. "I am the hero and the book is myself," he says in "Tropic of Cancer." In the hands of a less-gifted writer, such blurring of narrative voice invites disaster. Miller pulls it off seamlessly. Exactly how is not so easy to describe.

His fictional persona is many things--graphically erotic, elliptically surrealistic, unevenly anarchistic, combatively philosophical, abidingly romantic, downright funny--and always deeply felt. He resoundingly deplores patriotism, modern medicine, financial responsibility and organized religion, presaging emulation by such latter-day iconoclasts as Norman Mailer and Lenny Bruce.

"Tropic of Cancer" and its companion volumes, "Black Spring" (1936) and "Tropic of Capricorn" (1939), are the bedrock on which Henry Miller's worldwide reputation rests, though he continued to publish books for almost another half-century. It would be more than two decades, however, before that reputation took root in the United States. When Grove Press finally published "Tropic of Cancer" in 1961, it ran into a buzz saw of lawsuits that charged irredeemable obscenity. Two years later, a Supreme Court decision lifted from Miller's shoulders the onus of being censored in his back yard. At 70, he was hailed by the '60s counterculture as a hero.

Miller had been elsewhere beleaguered since returning to the United States after World War II broke out in Europe. Though never a political activist, he openly opposed America's entry into the war, an unpopular view that cost him prestige at a time when he seemed to be catching on in the literary world.

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