Chronicling Henry Miller’s life is a daunting task. Hardly any documentation exists detailing the four decades preceding the publication of TROPIC OF CANCER (1934), the widely banned debut novel that brought him lasting notoriety and respect. In the years following its publication, Miller presented potential biographers with a problem of another sort, surrealistically confounding his personal history with that of the literary persona, also named “Henry Miller,” who narrates virtually all of his works.
In HENRY MILLER, Robert Ferguson combines mostly familiar biographical data with pithy insights into Miller’s personality, yet too often confuses facts with possibly fabricated material. The biographer is at his best covering the years just before and after the publication of TROPIC OF CANCER, when Miller first discovered his literary voice and attracted serious consideration. The narrative suffers when Ferguson covers other periods in Miller’s fiction as if it were factual. Conversely, he rushes through Miller’s later years, quickly summarizing periods for which much reliable information exists.
Factual errors and misspellings further detract from Ferguson’s biography, as does his puzzling reluctance to present aspects of Miller unfamiliar to the general public: Although he seems to have had access to Miller’s earliest, most obscure work, he rarely presents it for scrutiny, instead excerpting long-available material. He also shies away from using his familiarity with Miller to theorize about the author’s complex personality. Such liabilities ultimately prevent Ferguson from presenting a convincing, masterly portrait of his challenging subject.