Henry Miller Additional Biography


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 1506 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The three decades marking the most productive period in Henry Miller’s life as a writer coincided with the period in which the legal community in the United States confronted the issues of publishing and distributing literary works that some people deem obscene or pornographic. The number of court cases on this issue reached an all-time high from the mid-1950’s to the early 1960’s. Famous trials considered such literary masterpieces as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959), Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1949), and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). Some of these works were unavailable in the United States for many...

(The entire section is 437 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Miller was an unsuccessful writer until his experiences as a penniless expatriate in Paris galvanized his imagination. The result was Tropic of Cancer (1934), a loosely organized account of his life in Paris as well as an ecstatic record of self- discovery. The sexually explicit book establishes a distinction between Miller’s often romantic yearnings and the mechanical lustful adventures of his male friends. The novel was published by Obelisk Press, a French publisher specializing in experimental literature, and was followed by Tropic of Capricorn (1939), a savage evocation of Miller’s earlier years in Brooklyn. Both books drew critical praise, but were routinely seized by...

(The entire section is 968 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Creator of a first-person style that deftly mixes fact, philosophy, and fantasy, Henry Valentine Miller was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. His father, Heinrich, drank heavily; his mother, Louise, was stern and domineering; his only sibling, Lauretta, was mentally retarded. Miller spent most of his youth in Brooklyn, living in Williamsburg from 1892 to 1900 and Bushwick from 1901 to 1907. An earnest reader, he enjoyed close friendships with neighborhood boys but felt inhibited among his female peers. In 1909 he entered the City College of New York but soon left. After beginning work as a cement company clerk, he embarked on a rigorous physical regimen that included pacing cyclists on their weekend races. In the years...

(The entire section is 785 words.)