The Happiest Man Alive
Henry Miller’s life seems to be made for biography, to almost call for a biographical examination: five marriages, numerous obstacles to artistic achievement, controversy that continues fifty years after his first book, fame combined with public calumny, origins in the last century and influence continuing into the next, and perhaps most of all an enduring appeal to an international reading public. Moreover, Miller himself, almost from the start, saw himself as an important figure long before he had accomplished anything as an artist, so he saved all sorts of notes, made carbons of early letters, kept an eye on posterity, and, in what is surely one of the greatest challenges to any biographer or critic, so intertwined the actual incidents of his life with an imaginative, fanciful adjustment of these events that the tangle he created may never be entirely cleared up.
For many years Miller’s reputation as a sex-crazed satyr (according to his detractors) or a superhuman saint (according to his supporters) left no middle ground available for a relatively impartial investigator, but the passage of time, shifts in public perception of what is acceptable in literature and in life patterns, and the deaths of many of the people Miller knew have made it possible to write about him without the partisan furor that surrounded earlier efforts such as Bern Porter’s The Happy Rock (1945)—which Mary Dearborn calls “a negligible collection of trivia”— or Jay Martin’s Always Merry and Bright (1979). In addition, during the late 1980’s, the appearance of a number of important books, especially the extremely candid, previously suppressed excerpt from Anaïs Nin’s diary called Henry and June (1986), the correspondence between Miller and Nin published as A Literate Passion (1987), Miller’s Letters To Emil (1989), and Miller’s collected Book of Friends (1984), as well as the increasing availability of Miller’s voluminous correspondence and the notes and manuscripts for early, unpublished efforts such as Crazy Cook and Moloch, which Miller labored over during the 1920’s, have opened the field for a diligent researcher. In the centennial year of Miller’s birth, the publication of biographies by Dearborn and Robert Ferguson (Henry Miller: A Life) has established a firmer foundation for both literary critics and historians and has provided the first relatively comprehensive, in-depth look at Miller’s life for legions of readers who have seemed as fascinated with the man as with his work.
There are three major problems at the heart of Miller’s life and work that a biographer must confront. The early stages of Miller’s youth and his life before his first marriage are likely to remain clouded, since so little material is available, and the years after he began to achieve some recognition beyond a huge cult are moderately well covered by a variety of sources. What still must be organized, narrated, analyzed, and evaluated are the years in the 1920’s when he grew into the man who could thrust Tropic of Cancer at the world in 1934; the years in the 1930’s when he actually wrote Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring (1936), Tropic of Capricorn (1939), and many shorter pieces; and the entire question of how Miller used the materials of his life to fashion his major work. The formation of his artistic consciousness in the 1920’s requires the biographer to blend many sources into a coherent narrative progression. The actual transmutation of the circumstances of his life in Paris into Tropic of Cancer requires a sensitivity to a complex of occasions—social, literary, psychological, and cultural. Additionally, the almost hopelessly confused interlinkage of life and art, myth and history, fact and meta-fact and proto-fact in a frequently surreal combination of genres requires not only a thorough knowledge of Miller’s work but also a sufficient interest in it to be willing to consider its literary merits—its limitations and its persistent appeal in spite of almost total invisibility in university curricula.
Dearborn has taken her subject seriously enough to work her way through the daunting amount of material gathered in civic and academic libraries across the Continent and has chosen to confront the puzzling and almost inexplicable contradictions in Miller’s behavior with an intelligent, informed strategy of speculation. Her psychoanalytic approach to Miller’s family background may not be definitive in absence of more evidence, but her ideas about the influences of a meek, bullied father drifting into the realm of homoerotic behavior and a termagant of a mother forever critical of the men in her house lead to some reasonable arguments concerning the roots of Miller’s sexual attitudes. While not strictly a feminist in her perspective—she is much less sympathetic to June Smith, Miller’s second wife and the focus of The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (1949-1959) than is Ferguson—her extension Kate Millett’s attack on Miller as the exemplar of male sexual neurosis in the...
(The entire section is 2100 words.)