Henry Valentine Miller was born on December 26, 1891, in the Yorkville section of New York City. Both of his parents were of German stock: His father, a gentleman’s tailor, came from jovial people; his mother and her family typified the austere, industrious, respectable bourgeois life against which Miller was to rebel so vehemently. For the first nine years of his life, the family lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the Fourteenth Ward. For Miller, this was a child’s paradise.
When Miller was ten years old, his family moved to Decatur Street, the so-called Street of Early Sorrows, in Brooklyn’s Bushwick section. His teenage experiences there helped form his attitudes on life, literature, and women. Miller was an affable young man; his special friends at this time were members of the Xerxes Society, a musical crowd. Male conviviality would be important to Miller throughout his life.
Miller was a model student and graduated as salutatorian from high school, but his formal education ended after a few months at the City College of New York. Always an avid reader—he had read through the Harvard classics as well as many romantic and adventure tales—Miller became an autodidact. By the time he was twenty years old, he had devoured such diverse authors as Joseph Conrad, Madame Blavatsky, and François Rabelais and had decided that he wanted to be a writer—about what, he did not know. Besides frequenting theaters in New York and Brooklyn, Miller was often seen at burlesque shows and in brothels. If his mother seemed cold and difficult to please, these women were open for sexual pleasure. Despite these experiences, Miller developed an intense idealism about love and the perfect woman, centering his longing on a school classmate, Cora Seward. At the same time, though, he began in 1910 an affair with a widow, Pauline Chouteau, closer to his mother’s age.
In an effort to escape this passionate entanglement, Miller went to California in 1913, winding up miserable as a ranch hand near Chula Vista. Only hearing Emma Goldman in nearby San Diego, extolling anarchism, redeemed the trip. The next year Miller was back in New York, working in his father’s tailor shop (described in Black Spring) and reading omnivorously. He was attracted to universalizing ideas and grander interpretations of the meaning of life than those of his Brooklyn milieu. During the years 1914-1915, Miller began to study piano seriously; through this enthusiasm, he met Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, whom he married in 1917. Their stormy courtship and marriage is depicted graphically in The World of Sex (1940, 1957), Tropic of Capricorn, and Sexus.
Drifting through many jobs, Miller found his way to the bottom—Western Union. His experience as a messenger employment manager opened his eyes to the underlying misery in America. His sympathy with these victims, adrift in a dehumanized urban landscape, was responsible for his unpublished first novel, Clipped Wings, dedicated to Horatio Alger. Miller’s disillusionment with the American Dream came at a time when his marriage was also foundering. His response, rather than despair or self-pity, was to begin keeping a journal and extensive files of material for later use. He was beginning to become a writer, establishing an aesthetic distance from life and from himself.
Miller’s delivery as a full-fledged artist was through the agency of his second wife, June Edith Smith, the Mona, Mara, She, or Her of his fiction. They met at a Broadway dance hall in 1923 and married the next year. June was a creative artist—of herself and her life story—who showed Miller the...
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