Henry Miller Essay - Critical Essays

Henry Miller American Literature Analysis

Miller’s work was misunderstood from the very beginning not only because of its startling candor and sexual explicitness but also because Miller was one of the foremost exponents of many of the modernist techniques which traditional commentators were unprepared to evaluate or understand. For one thing, Miller (like artist Pablo Picasso and the composer Igor Stravinsky) challenged the limits of conventional composition, refusing to be bound by the “rules” of unity or the linear demands of chronology. His books were not exactly novels or autobiographies or journals or essays but instead blended those forms into a mutant or hybrid amalgam which combined some of the elements of various genres generally kept separate.

Also, Miller’s literary voice ranged from the conversational to the oratorical, with many variants along the scale, and his use of language ranged from his mastery of American colloquial speech to his proficiency with many different modes of rhetorical declaration. At the root of all these elements, Miller drew on—indeed, plunged into—the depths of his subconscious mind in an effort to create as complete and accurate a picture of his sensibility as it evolved across the middle decades of the twentieth century as his means allowed. The narrative consciousness of his “autonovels” was an archetype of the artist-as-hero, a replacement for the more traditional adventurer, athlete, soldier, or industrialist of earlier American fiction, and because this artist/hero grew and changed with the author, he was never completely captured in any single volume Miller wrote.

For this reason, critics have often suggested that Miller’s books lack form and structure, but Miller worked throughout his career from a rough outline he developed in the 1920’s, a sprawling chart which mapped the direction of two progressive narratives. The first and more specific one would be an epic of artistic and emotional development, in which the extraordinary sexual maelstrom he inhabited with June Smith would be explored in unprecedented depth. This track was called “Capricorn” in his notes, and eventually came to include Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Plexus (which was a failure), and Nexus and remained incomplete in Miller’s mind until his death. The other track, which eventually disclosed its form as it was written, derived from Miller’s ideas about how an artist might live in an ideal social community. It had its origins in the world of childhood which he recalled as a kind of paradise he had lost long ago and hoped to regain in another form through the self’s revelation in artistic perceptions.

Miller took as his model Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855), and the form of the work is determined by the collision of the phenomena of the universe and the evolving artistic consciousness of the author. This track began with Tropic of Cancer, a book which declared the fully formed but still developing self of the author in opposition to a landscape of blight and erosion; it then moved both back toward a dreamlike past in Black Spring and outward to a more congenial environment in The Colossus of Maroussi. Eventually it moved on to a semi-conclusion in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch; this track actually includes many of Miller’s letters to Durrell, Nin, and others.

In the first group (a triad if Plexus is discarded), the author is the prime agent of the action, a character in flux whose future is unclear, whose present is in turmoil, and whose life is instinctual, immediate, and often psychologically devastating. In the second group, a quartet, the author is more of an observer than an actor, prepared by the events of the triad to comment on, evoke and describe, and evaluate everything he sees.

The crucial link between the two tracks is the fact that the triad should explain the artist who erupts into being and song in Tropic of Cancer, but in Nexus, the tone and mood of the narration (Miller writing in 1960) is hardly like the defiant snarl that proclaims a unique, dangerous, and compelling new creation. This failure of sorts is typical of Miller’s inability to realize his aspirations completely, but the mysteries that remain are a part of the appeal of his work, and the struggle toward clarity and self-understanding is as fascinating in its dead ends and tortured turnings as in its occasional moments of satisfaction and fulfillment. Miller’s attempts to understand and express the feminine equivalent of his traditionally masculine sensibility is part of a goal he never really reaches, but—as is the case in much modernist art—the journey is as important to the traveler as the destination.

Two additional related factors further complicate Miller’s work. One is his use of the “I” narrator, a device which was valuable for the process of self-creation but confusing to critics who tended to assume that there was a fairly specific equivalence between the author and his central character. Miller however maintained, “If I lie a bit now and then it is mainly in the interest of truth,” and his essential point is that any technique for establishing “reality” is appropriate and justified.

Similarly, many readers have been troubled by his treatment of women. In actuality, the attitudes of various male characters are not representative of the author at all, and in many cases, they are used as indications of the failure of the speaker to find love and his neurotic retreat into physical gratification as a substitute for a more complete relationship. It is necessary to see passages which exhibit anxiety and hatred as reflecting a national psychosis that is part of the society Miller constantly criticizes in his desire to see a utopian America. This does not mean that Miller is entirely free from some of the attitudes he expresses but that, as in most aspects of his work, everything is more complex than any single instance might suggest.

Tropic of Cancer


(The entire section is 2477 words.)