Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2840
Miller, Henry 1891–
An American novelist, essayist, literary, art, and social critic, Miller has long been a major influence in world literature. He calls himself "a holy old Untouchable" and he speaks, as Kenneth Rexroth has written, for "Surplus Man to whom the values, the achievements, and the classics of the dominant civilization are meaningless and absurd." His ribaldry and eroticism have made him perhaps the most censored writer of all time. Lawrence Durrell, however, sees in the prose of his autobiographical novels an "Elizabethan quality, a rare tonic vitality which comes from the savage health of its creator." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
I call Henry Miller the greatest living author because I think he is. I do not call him a poet because he has never written a poem; he even dislikes poetry, I think. But everything he has written is a poem in the best as well as in the broadest sense of the word. Secondly, I do not call him a writer, but an author. The writer is the fly in the ointment of modern letters; Miller has waged ceaseless war against writers. If one had to type him one might call him a Wisdom writer, Wisdom literature being a type of literature which lies between literature and scripture; it is poetry only because it rises above literature and because it sometimes ends up in bibles….
Every word he has ever written is autobiographical, but only in the way Leaves of Grass is autobiographical. There is not a word of "confession" in Miller. His amorous exploits are sometimes read as a kind of Brooklyn Casanova or male Fanny Hill, but there is probably not a word of exaggeration or boasting to speak of—or only as much as the occasion would call for. The reader can and cannot reconstruct the Life of Henry Miller from his books, for Miller never sticks to the subject any more than Lawrence does. The fact is that there isn't any subject and Miller is its poet….
Miller's achievement is miraculous: he is screamingly funny without making fun of sex, the way Rabelais does…. Miller is accurate and poetic in the highest degree; there is not a smirk anywhere in his writings. Miller undoubtedly profited from the mistakes of his predecessors; his aim was not to write about the erotic but to write the whole truth about the life he knew. This goal demanded the full vocabulary and iconography of sex, and it is possible that he is the first writer outside the Orient who has succeeded in writing as naturally about sex on a large scale as novelists ordinarily write about the dinner table or the battlefield. I think only an American could have performed this feat….
What makes Miller unique is his time and place; he is the only American of our time who has given us a full-scale interpretation of modern America, other than the kind of thing we find in the cultural journals….
Miller writes as a poet about the demonic hideousness of New York City, Chicago, the South, or he rhapsodizes when there is anything to be rapturous about. But it is not Art that he cares about; it is man, man's treatment of man in America and man's treatment of nature. What we get in Miller is not a sense of superiority but fury, even the fury of the prophet of doom….
Miller is "irresponsible" as far as official and popular politics go, or as far as common church morality goes, and as far as literary manners go. But he is not...
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a poseur, he has no program, yet he has a deep and pure sense of morality. I would call him a total revolutionary, the man who will settle for nothing less than "Christmas on earth."…
Miller calls for an end to revolt once and for all. His message is precisely that of Whitman, of Rimbaud, of Rilke: "Everything we are taught is false"; and "Change your life." As a writer Miller may be second- or third-rate or of no rating at all; as a spiritual example he stands among the great men of our age. Will this ever be recognized? Not in our time probably.
Karl Shapiro, "The Greatest Living Author," in his In Defense of Ignorance (copyright © 1960 by Karl Shapiro; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1960, pp. 313-38.
The Miller man, [in Tropic of Cancer] and in later books, is in effect the descendant of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, without his nastiness, and of Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge, without his fastidiousness. Miller's hero even has his feminine ideal, the American girl here called Mona, who recurs in his other books under a slightly different name; and although he marries her, she remains elusive. Yet his hectic devotion to her doesn't stop him from having all those other jubilantly recorded love affairs….
He has been a generally liberating influence upon other writers, for many of his values, particularly his reverence for life and his attacks upon standardization, have been widely circulated and adopted, if only unconsciously. Overtly, his influence is most apparent upon celebrants of rootlessness such as the beatniks, or upon Lawrence Durrell, whose later works are the outgrowth of his early novel, The Black Book, which in its turn is an outgrowth of Miller. Durrell says of Miller: "American literature today begins and ends with the meaning of what he has done." Of course to some readers Tropic of Cancer, strong language and all, may seem dated, but perhaps to many others the publication of the book here and now will reemphasize its enduring freshness….
Now it must be granted that parts of Tropic of Cancer will hammer away at some of the strongest of stomachs, even in this epoch in which so many books are really scabrous. But in the present volume, among other things, Miller projects with gusto some of the great comic scenes of modern literature. There are, for example, the Dijon sequence in which the narrator goes to teach for a while in a broken-down provincial lycée; the last episode of the book, which involves the Miller man and one of his friends and a French family in a crazy farce; and, above all, the scenes describing a Gandhi disciple looking for fun in a Paris brothel. If literary quality is a criterion, these passages run far ahead of any considerations of obscenity; in themselves they guarantee that Henry Miller is an authentic, a significant author whose ripest work has been too long forbidden in his homeland.
Harry T. Moore, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 18, 1961.
Essentially [this] is what [Tropic of Cancer] is: a mirrorimage of the testimony which is given at revival meetings. There you can hear about men who got right with God; this man got right with art and sex and the use of his brain and time. Like all converts, he is on fire. Like all converts, he simply will not leave your lapels alone. Thus he is a bit tedious. Because he came fairly late in life to a personally valid ethic, he cannot believe that anyone he talks to has ever done it before him….
Narrative is not his forte; his characterizations are sketchy; his philosophy is jejune. It is in pressing his whole existence against the warm wax of his prose and leaving there its complete imprint that he is at his best—in following every quiver of sentience to its source or destination with phrases that sometimes add up to a gorgeous fabric….
[Tropic of Cancer] belongs, modestly but securely, in the American tradition of profundity-through-deliberate-simplicities that has its intellectual roots in Thoreau and continues through such men as Whitman and Sherwood Anderson until, in a changed time, it thinks it needs to go abroad to breathe. Miller stands under his Paris street-lamp, defiantly but genially drunk, trolling his catch mixed of beauty and banality and recurrent bawdry—a little pathetic because he thinks he is a discoverer and doesn't realize that he is only a tourist on a well-marked tour. We see him at last as an appealingly zestful, voracious, talented hick.
Stanley Kauffmann, "'Tropic of Cancer'" (originally titled "An Old Shocker Comes Home"; copyright © 1961 by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Live-right, 1972, pp. 211-16.
As early as the thirties, Miller decided for himself that either American society was through or he was through with it. He jumped off the bandwagon of "success" (depicted in those great scenes in which he was a personnel manager for Western Union in New York City), went underground to live a bum's life, and to write. Sexual pleasure became both an opiate and a way of protest for him. He is the true ancestor of all the beatniks and hippies, except that he is a most immensely learned, intensely cultivated writer of major stature. To read him, after recognizing all his quirks, traps, and entanglements, is to breathe the air of great literature again. Literally hundreds of ordinary people (his old friends and acquaintances), people from the middle and lower depths of American urban society, caper, throng, prance, and stumble through the pages of his two major works of fiction.
But Miller's view not merely of the American scene but of all modern, progressive, scientific, and industrial life, is basically hopeless if not desperate. As a writer he lives, as it were, on his biological energy and his devotion to thought and art; and it is logical that his scenes of warmth and love and affection center around "old-fashioned" American life, such as the beautiful eulogy to New York's East Side in the first decades of the century….
From Miller descended … the beatnik and hippie traditions which, whatever their obvious limitations, provided a liberating force in our literature from the sterile conformity of the fifties. Such writers as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to mention only a few, brought our literature out of the bowers of academe back to the streets of life, a life distorted and malformed and "sick" with the modern sickness which the early existentialists first proclaimed.
Maxwell Geismar, "The Shifting Illusion: Dream and Fact," in American Dreams, American Nightmares, edited by David Madden (© 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 45-57.
Like James, Dreiser, and Fitzgerald, Miller assails the American Dream of permanent wealth and happiness as the automatic reward of individual effort and excellence of character; he joins in the attack on the Dream as a hoax and a fraud. But where the others dramatize the process of belief and disenchantment, where they take account of losses and gains, analyze the social matrix of illusion and credit the desire for success as human facts worthy of compassion, Miller alternates between satire and direct assault. Less the novelist, he reveals himself as far more the moralist, which raises questions about the grounds of his moral fervor.
Since he settled in California in 1944, Miller's moral vision has become a major note in his writing. It is based on a vision of modern society as irredeemable, unchangeable, except through some form of apocalypse or shattering revelation. By "society" Miller means the way of life depicted in the caricature—the style of daily living, rather than the structure of social relations which gives that style a concrete historical setting. Any redemption must find its source outside social relations, that is, outside history. "To live beyond the pale, to work for the pleasure of working, to grow old gracefully while retaining one's faculties, one's enthusiasms, one's self-respect, one has to establish other values than those endorsed by the mob." The "mob" is Miller's indiscriminate label for American "society," the antithesis to which is the "artist." "It takes an artist to make this breach in the wall."…
His artists are a life-giving elite….
This redemptive function Miller assigns to his artists is a familiar idea with roots in nineteenth-century antibourgeois sentiment. Miller's artist is often the free bohemian, whose life on the fly is a deliberate slap at the order and routine of respectable life. But he is also something more. With all the eclecticism of Miller's thinking about art, and the important influence of European ideas, especially Surrealism, at bottom he is still attached to the idea of a particularly American function for his artist, or for personal liberation as such. To be sure, the idea does not often reach the surface of his writings, but there are enough clues to suggest that Miller hopes for a specifically American redemption—indeed, we discover, a return to traditional or mythic national values. How else are we to understand Miller's description of the present money-getting as a "bitter caricature" of the ideals of "our liberty-loving forefathers"? Or his mention of "a great social experiment … begun on this virgin continent" [The Air-Conditioned Nightmare]?…
The image of the "air-conditioned nightmare" … affirms implicitly a "dream" as a measure of judgment. In his earlier books America represented death and destruction of spirit. The American city suffocated him; he needed to escape…. Black Spring, the most successful of his [books, evokes] both the suffocation and the frenzy of release…. The solution is to destroy the old American world in himself, the world of fraud, materialism, gadgetry, the dream turned nightmare, and to die into a new, free being.
But does the new being Miller elicits from his desperate experiences really constitute a rejection of the American Dream? Or is it a translation of the values of the Dream from economic and social terms to psychological and aesthetic ones? To be "immune, great, godlike" remains the goal of his energetic assault upon the world, and in a sense he has freed himself to undertake that assault in a manner which has something in common with the fantasies of urban popular culture—fantasies of escape from conventions of family and work, of personal license in pursuit of pleasure, of "doing you own thing." If the heart of the American Dream is the image of the unfettered man "making" himself by accumulation of goods and credit, assuring a place for himself at the American banquet, Miller has detached the activity from any social end, and celebrated the act of accumulating experiences, especially sexual experiences, as an end in itself. Instead of a duty, life becomes an adventure—but still an adventure of self-aggrandizement and self-creation. By inverting the Horatio Alger style of the Dream, Miller discovers its essence, the desire to have what William James called a "moral holiday" as a permanent condition. "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive."…
The flight from history, from social ties and obligations, is the clearest mark of Miller's underlying commitment to an American Dream. The idea of a "history on the side" may have replaced the "castle of pure white spit," but the motive of immunity from time and society remains intact. Not wealth but voluntary poverty, not excellence of character but its exact reversal, become the means toward this immunity. Miller's career, as recounted in his books, can be taken as a quest for ultimate self-transcendence, for the perfect frontier where without any encumbrances the self can feed on the world without distraction.
Once we become aware of these familiar American aspirations in Miller, it is not surprising to discover other elements of the cultural pattern, especially the obsession with memory, the attempt to recapture an idealized past. While Miller rejects history as "meaningless," as a "cancer," his works are obsessed with the past. The personal past becomes a virtual alternative to world history. The pattern completes itself when we encounter passages which can only be described as "pastoral" in their yearning to recapture earlier moments of peace and harmony….
The wild park, the park of the unconscious, which the writer both invokes as theme and employs as technique, is meant to dispel the nightmare of the city. Liberation is expressed in the act of writing, in its putative freedom from restraint. Flow takes the place of plot. The persona commands a range of styles—comic vernacular, high-flown prophecy and exhortation, surreal fantasy—but it does not possess any genuine plasticity. It is beyond change, beyond the ability to register experience as anything other than force, energy, impact. The effect is to make voyeurs of the readers, not participants. Self-absorption indulged on a scale of verbal magnificence is Miller's essential form of liberation. His "history on the side" is autobiography in which event and fantasy have identical status. To discriminate would be to falsify the flow, the tangled undergrowth of the "natural park" of the self.
Alan Trachtenberg, "'History on the Side': Henry Miller's American Dream," in American Dreams, American Nightmares, edited by David Madden (© 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 136-48.