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The Kinkdom and the Power : THE HAPPIEST MAN ALIVE; A Biography of Henry Miller, By Mary Dearborn (Simon & Schuster: $24.95; 364 pp.) : HENRY MILLER; A Life, By Robert Ferguson (W. W. Norton: $24.95; 416 pp.) : NOTHING BUT THE MARVELOUS; Wisdoms of Henry Miller, Edited by Blair Fielding (Capra Press: $12.95; 75 pp.; illustrations by Miller)

July 07, 1991|Molly Giles | Giles recently won the National Book Critics Circle Citation for excellence in book reviewing

Henry Miller believed in luck--all his long life he consulted astrologers, graphologists, phrenologists and numerologists--but his own personal timing was off. Good things came to him, but they came either too early or too late.

He missed being born on Christmas by one day (his mother, he complained, had a "clutching womb"). He lost the Lost Generation by a decade and arrived in Paris long after the more fashionable expatriate writers had decamped. He fell in love with impeccable illogic--his first love was a girl he didn't dare touch, his last a girl who wouldn't touch him on a dare, and the two most important loves of his life, June Smith and Anais Nin, were girls who preferred to touch each other.

Although he was an elegant-looking older man, he was too shabby, bald and bespectacled to be considered handsome in his prime. He struggled with poverty, unpopularity and plain neglect for almost half a century, and then, when "The Tropic of Cancer" finally was published in the United States, found himself literally catapulted into fame and fortune overnight. Acclaimed as a writer, he no longer cared much for writing, and spent his last years playing competitive Ping Pong in his Pacific Palisades mansion. He died in 1981 with no full-fledged biography.

Now, 10 years later, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, he is being treated to not one but two, quite similar, biographies.

Which to choose? Both Robert Ferguson's "Henry Miller: A Life" and Mary Dearborn's "The Happiest Man Alive" cost the same (Ferguson's book has more photographs) and both give essentially the same information: We learn about Miller's German immigrant parents, his childhood in Brooklyn, his years in Europe, his struggles to create himself as a writer, his five marriages, his love affair with Nin, his friendships with Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perles, his battles with censorship, his years in Big Sur, and his delayed recognition. There are a few differences (Dearborn has him die on June 7, Ferguson on June 4) but they are minor. Both books are serious, scholarly and well-written.

Both are, as well, subtly insane. Most literary biographies are, and most readers of biographies enjoy them for exactly that reason. The kinkiness in Dearborn's book manifests itself in dark speculation about Miller's masculinity; Ferguson engages in weird word bursts that blossom and fade, with no follow-through.

Dearborn, whose previous books include a study of gender and ethnicity in American culture, sees Miller's life as a "story of twentieth-century male identity," and she is interested in his childhood boyfriends, his mother's emotional abuse, his father's "somewhat feminine" personality, and his gay Boys Brigade leader. She notes Miller's obsession with physical exercise and worries about his bicycling; she sees it as an erotic outlet that only escalated his "sexual anxieties."

"What was for America largely a healthful pastime," she sighs, "was for Henry a hyper sexual experience." (She does not tell how.) Dearborn adds that Miller was always more comfortable with men and was "drawn to women almost in fascinated horror." He was homoerotic, voyeuristic, fascinated by cowboys and prisons, with "a distinct fondness for the gangbang over any other form of sexual intercourse." Sex to Miller was neither "beautiful" nor "nice"; it was a part of life but it was "more like defecation than eating."

Dearborn claims that June Smith, "who was what we would call today 'streetwise,' " kept Henry fascinated primarily because of her numerous intrigues with others, men and women alike. Although she sees only a "girlish courtship" between Anais Nin and Smith in Paris, she suggests that Miller saw more, and wanted to "be hated and perhaps punished" for his vision. "All his life Miller entertained the idea that he might in fact be another Jesus Christ."

Dearborn's book is studded with juicy tidbits about Miller's eccentricities, and from her we learn he had an "irrational hatred of banks," was unable to manage the simplest machine (even dial telephones confused him), harbored a "passionate dislike for any woman with a young child" and was repeatedly humiliated by his last wife, who refused to sleep with him.

Ferguson's attitude toward Miller is both more startling and more studious. He starts his book with two gratuitous dictionary definitions, one for the "female pudenda" and the other for "an act of sexual connection" (neither of which he refers to again), and goes on to announce that Miller, who "began life as a human being," ended it as "a rare hybrid of man and book"--a dicey proposition he wisely abandons.

He describes the young Miller as "friendly and cheerful," able to cut the trousers in his father's tailor shop but unable to master the "complexities of the jacket and coat." He does not see Miller rattled by "sexual anxiety" but describes him instead as an essentially romantic man "addicted to love."

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