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The Legacy of Author Henry Miller: Death of a Cockroach

January 15, 1991|JACK SMITH

This being the centenary of his birth, Henry Miller is being widely dissected and adulated in his absence by his literary heirs and those who claim to have basked in what Lawrence Clark Powell called "Millerlight."

"Throughout the year," writes Ralph B. Sipper in Book Review, "various events and publications will celebrate the life and work of this most American of American authors who left the land of his birth in order to discover himself."

Though he lived his last years in Pacific Palisades, I never met Miller; but I enjoyed his light. As a reporter in 1962 I covered a trial of one of his books for obscenity, and I received a personal letter from him, which I still have.

Disenchanted with America, Miller in 1930 went to Paris, where he lived a bohemian life for nine years, writing "Tropic of Cancer" and other books of bawdy humor and uninhibited revelation.

The book that was on trial here was "Tropic of Cancer." Technically, the book was not on trial; a bookseller, Bradley Smith, was on trial for selling it. Of course, the prosecution had to prove that the book was obscene. That such a relatively innocent book should have been regarded as legally obscene only 30 years ago seems incredible today; but there are signs that we are in a new wave of bluenose censorship.

The high point of Smith's trial was a reading in court of the entire text of "Tropic of Cancer." The assistant city attorney charged with reading it must be commended for keeping a straight face throughout. Some scenes of the book are set in a Parisian bordello, and the action is not only bawdy but hilarious.

It is unseemly to laugh in a courtroom, especially at material that may be judged obscene; but sex, to the observer, is essentially funny. While the spectators occasionally broke out in snickers and sometimes guffaws, the judge and the jurors--especially the three men--went through excruciating facial contortions to suppress their natural risibilities and avoid the sin of laughter. But there were two or three elderly women jurors in the front row who sat sternly through the entire reading, never cracking a smile.

What cracked me up, though, was the judge. Whenever the reader came to an outrageously funny passage, the judge would hide his face behind a legal document and lean to one side, as if talking to his clerk. Meanwhile, the shaking of his shoulders gave him away.

Between laughs, though, the judge was decorum personified. At the end of the trial he reiterated the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity, which stood chalked on a blackboard at the front of the courtroom throughout. The main point was that the material must be utterly without redeeming social value.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty. Two years later the verdict was reversed. In the meanwhile, Los Angeles bookstores stocked Miller's books at their peril.

I would like to say that Henry Miller's letter to me was a compliment about my work--a shaft, so to speak, of Millerlight--from one literary person to another.

Alas, it was a note explaining an enclosure--a little essay of his on how to get rid of bedbugs and cockroaches.

The note said: "I am enclosing a little spiel about the cockroach and the bedbug which I hope you will seriously consider using in your column. I say this because from reading your column regularly, I get the impression that you are a friend of man's and open to all manner of suggestions. I am serious about the remedy proposed. It worked like magic for me."

"As everyone knows," the enclosure begins, "both these creatures (the cockroach and the bedbug) have been here on earth long before man and will doubtless be here long after he has disappeared. . . . Strangely enough, for the invisible enemies which we fear most--I refer to germs, viruses, bacteria--we have remedies, but we are helpless where the bedbug and the cockroach are concerned.

"Like the housefly and other domestic pests these creatures have built up quite an immunity to pesticides. And now I come to my point. I have learned of a way to get rid of them easily and cheaply. I found out only after numerous experiments by exterminators. My remedy was told me by an artist friend who had struggled with them for years. . . ."

Miller's remedy: Scatter boric acid in powder form around the haunts of the roaches. "The powder sticks to his feet. Thus he drags it back to the nest and dies, as do his progeny and his treasury of eggs."

I can testify that the remedy works. And it's permanent. We haven't seen a cockroach in our house since I tried it.

In case this little essay has escaped collection, I am proud, in this his centennial year, to add it to Henry Miller's oeuvre.

At least no one can deny its redeeming social value.

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