Henry Valentine Miller was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan’s Upper East Side the day after Christmas in 1891. His father, Heinrich Miller, was an affable raconteur who ran a tailor shop, while his mother, Louis Marie Nieting, liked the stability and order of a stolid community of merchants and conventional shops. Before Miller was a year old, his family moved across the East River to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where young Henry spoke German until he entered school. He was a good student, ranking second in his high school class, and upon graduation in 1909, he entered City College of New York but dropped out after only one term.
For the next few years, he worked at a variety of jobs, traveled to California (where he met Emma Goldman), read widely, and began to dream of becoming a writer. Financial restrictions kept pulling him back to Brooklyn and his parents’ home, and after a number of affairs, he married Beatrice Wickens, a piano teacher, in 1917. Two years later, his daughter Barbara was born, and in that same year, his first written works were published—a few reviews for a small short-story magazine called The Black Cat, based in Salem, Massachusetts.
Miller succeeded in getting a job as an employment manager for Western Union Telegraph Company in 1920, a position he used as the basis for the first part of Tropic of Capricorn (1939), and over a three-week vacation in 1922, he wrote the manuscript for a novel to be called Clipped Wings, about telegraph messengers. The novel was never published, but he felt that March 22, 1922, was his “first day of being a writer.”
In 1924, he divorced Wickens when he met June Smith, a dancer in a Brooklyn club; June was the basis for the Mara/Mona figure of Miller’s autobiographical romances. Miller and Smith were married as soon as his divorce was granted, and for the next few years, he tried several methods of earning a living while unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a writer. In 1927, while his wife was traveling in Europe with a female friend, Miller wrote a twenty-six-page outline of what would become The Rosy Crucifixion epic—including Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus (1949), Plexus (1953), and Nexus (1960)—and began a revised version of his Western Union novel, retitled Moloch, which was never published.
One of his wife’s male friends sent the Millers to Europe in 1928 to find a publisher, but Miller was uncomfortable there, and as his marriage was beginning to deteriorate, he returned to the United States. There he began a third novel in 1929 called Crazy Cock, which was also never published. As his marriage drifted toward a complete collapse in 1930, Miller returned to Paris alone to begin a decade of expatriatism. He subsisted on handouts, the generosity...
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