Miller, Henry (Vol. 1)
Miller, Henry 1891–
Miller is an American novelist whose gusty, Rabelaisian prose won him notoriety in the 'thirties with such novels as Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
The people Henry Miller writes about read him. They read him because he gives them something they cannot find elsewhere in print. It may not be precisely the real world, but it is nearer to it than most other writing, and it is certainly nearer than most so-called realistic writing…. Miller is a very unliterary writer. He writes as if he had just invented the alphabet. When he writes about a book, he writes as if he were the first and only man who ever read it—and, furthermore, as if it weren't a book but a piece of the living meat whacked off Balzac or Rimbaud or whoever.
Kenneth Rexroth, "The Reality of Henry Miller" (© 1959 by Kenneth Rexroth; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), in his Bird in the Bush, New Directions, 1959, pp. 154-67.
If in 1934, the year of [Tropic of Cancer's] publication, it was histrionic to call for and accept the imminent destruction of civilization, Miller has lived on to see his political and social maledictions gain in plausibility, so that he now appears on the scene as a prophet with a certain grisly honor. Moreover, the literary extremism of Cancer ties in with the recent revival of the romantic impulse, particularly the more unrestrained attempts to respond to—or swing with—the times….
Tropic of Cancer records by a mixed method of narrative and spontaneous notation Miller's more characteristic experiences and meditations during … two years of liberating himself in the dingy twilight zone of the Montmartre slums…. His discovery that he has a stomach for everything except hunger is accompanied, not unexpectedly, by his discovery that he is an artist, the two being aspects of the same process of freeing the inner man by a complete abandonment of conventional moral norms and social values … The two main elements of Cancer follow from the development of these two images—Miller the asocial man and Miller the artist—though they are a good deal less integrated than this opening statement presumes. The first results in the scenes from low life, the anecdotes of sordidness and disorder, usually presented in a spare, impassive prose, touched infrequently with joy, but almost invariably with comedy. These are by far the best moments in the book, for Miller is a fine natural writer and storyteller in the deadpan manner, a kind of Left Bank Mark Twain….
From such surrealists as Lautréamont, an early predecessor, and Blaise Cendrars, Miller seems to have found much of his apocalyptic nihilism and primitivism as well as the vehicle for his prolonged bouts of manic self-entrancement…. The surrealist influence on Miller leads him to a number of remarkable images, but it leads more often to passages of quasi-spontaneous hokum….
The need to rebel and the need for company led him directly into the form of romanticism in extremis that was available. And more particularly, they led him to those surrealists who offered him a set of attitudes—indeed, a primitivist subject matter—that was disencumbered of the discipline and lucidity essential to the surrealism of Breton, the early Aragon, and Henri Michaux. These writers carefully distorted objective realities to evoke the atmosphere and some of the imagery of reverie, but their main interest was in criticizing life in terms of the fantasies that dominated an individual or a society. In so doing they developed a mode of satiric vision that is strongly marked in the work of the other American surrealist of note, Nathanael West.
However, it is Miller's example rather than West's that seems most characteristically American and that also characterizes the more extreme attempts by writers in recent years both to reassert the role of the self in literature and to engage it with the fantastic tenor of the times.
(The entire section is 5,539 words.)