Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1173
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 of friends, and occasional newspaper work. Although the first wave of that period’s American expatriates had returned to the United States, Miller became friends with an interesting group of international avant-garde artists. In 1931, the year he began his intense friendship with Anaïs Nin, he started another novel, which he saw as a “Parisian notebook” and which was to appear eventually as Tropic of Cancer (1934).
Miller’s wife arrived unexpectedly in Paris in October, 1931, and while she and Miller were unable to rescue their marriage, her involvement with Nin led to the transformation of the Miller/Nin relationship from one of mutual admiration and encouragement to a secret sexual attachment as well. Nin and Miller corresponded steadily throughout the 1930’s, and Nin provided the money from a personal loan to assist in the publication of Tropic of Cancer. The book was widely admired by some leading literary figures, such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot (who wrote that it was “a rather magnificent piece of work”), but because of its sexual expressiveness, it was banned in every English-speaking country.
Miller divorced Smith in 1934 and returned briefly to New York in 1935 before spending the remainder of the decade in Europe, where he wrote Black Spring (1936), a book of essays called Max and the White Phagocytes (1938), a study of D. H. Lawrence which was not published until 1980, and Tropic of Capricorn. As World War II threatened to engulf Europe, Miller left Paris (with a ticket purchased by Nin) to visit the British writer Lawrence Durrell in Greece, which became the setting for his rhapsodic travel journal, The Colossus of Maroussi: Or, The Spirit of Greece (1941).
Arriving in New York in 1940, broke and unable to find an American publisher for the books he had been writing, Miller toured the United States with the artist Abraham Rattner, a trip which became the basis for The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). In the early 1940’s, Miller began to write the trilogy that formed the body of The Rosy Crucifixion, the epic account of his life with June Smith in the 1920’s. James Laughlin, the visionary American publisher of New Directions Press, began to send Miller steady advances against royalties for books he could legally publish in the United States.
Miller journeyed to the West Coast in 1944, hoping to find some kind of work in Hollywood, and when this failed, he settled in the rugged California coastal country of Big Sur and married Janina Lepska. Miller’s daughter Valentine was born in 1945, and although Tropic of Cancer had been selling steadily in Europe, Miller was unable to collect any royalties and continued to struggle financially. When Sexus was published in 1949, the year after Miller’s son Tony was born, the extreme frankness of its account of sexual behavior upset even some of his longtime supporters such as Durrell, and in 1950, the book was banned worldwide.
Miller and Lepska were divorced in 1952, the year he wrote The Books in My Life, and in the following year, Miller married Eve McClure. During the 1950’s, Miller was gradually being recognized by some conventional critics as an important writer, and the publication of Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch in 1957 enabled readers to see his more genial, less rebellious side. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1958 and concluded his exploration of his life in the 1920’s with Nexus in 1960, although he maintained for many years that there would be a sequel.
Barney Rosset of Grove Press challenged the restrictions on the rights of writers and publishers by issuing Tropic of Cancer in an American edition in 1961, and the book immediately became a best seller. Miller and McClure were divorced in 1963, and Tropic of Cancer was finally ruled not to be obscene after two years of trials. Miller bought a residence in Pacific Palisades in the mid-1960’s and began to publish shorter books of recollections and reflections with Noel Young’s Capra Press. In 1967 he married Hoki Tokuda. The marriage lasted three years and led to Miller’s Insomnia: Or, The Devil at Large (1970), and he spent the 1970’s writing only on occasion but finally being celebrated by friends and admirers who recognized him as an honored sage and important figure in American literary history.
Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 109
Miller became famous for the wrong reasons and stayed famous for the right ones. Although his books have never been studied in American schools, he is one of the United States’ most widely read authors. Beyond the shock of his examinations of previously forbidden aspects of human behavior, readers have discovered his erudition, his insight into every aspect of human nature, his mastery of an appealing style of expression (what George Orwell called his “friendly American voice”), and his judicious critique of contemporary society. His work, although uneven, eccentric, sprawling, and not always tasteful, remains compelling in accordance with Ezra Pound’s definition of literature—“News that stays news.”
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