Last Updated on August 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5539
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.
Theodore Solotaroff, "'All That Cellar-Deep Jazz': Henry Miller and Seymour Krim" (1961), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 22-36.
The truth about Henry Miller is that he is neither "the greatest living author" and a "unique saint" nor the "foulest writer of meaningless nonsense" and a "madman." Between cops and cultists it is sometimes difficult to see the who and what. Miller, I shall argue, is a minor but intriguing writer whose best works are the rhetorical gestures of a rebel-buffoon. We must, of course, also recognize him as a significant American oddity and as a symptomatic figure of his time and place. (Preface)
An intentionally eccentric work—with its fusion of anecdotes, rhapsodies, caricatures, philosophizings, and burlesques—the notebook of Tropic of Cancer (1934) best reveals Miller's hilarious and distinctive, though sometimes weird and tedious, wayward wisdom. Miller's peculiar talent consists less in dramatizing and transforming reality than in making fantastic gestures. For this literary shaman, the wild logos creates defiance, identity, and ecstasy against the world's blandness and destructiveness…. An essential part of Tropic of Cancer may be viewed as the saga of an aging American failure who boot-straps himself into artistic success by writing Tropic of Cancer. While the book depicts scenes of defeat, desperation, and misery, the almost simultaneous writing about those experiences constitutes, for Miller, a joyous achievement. His way down becomes his way up, and we approach one of the pervasive oddities of all Miller's work—his fantastic ambivalences about suffering which allow him to reverse most usual senses of proportion and feeling. (pp. 17-19)
Miller exploits the literary possibilities of what is down under—including the gynecological and excremental details. Rebellion against decorous convention, American male iconoclasm about the obscured crudity of life, esthetic and moral enlargement of literary style and subject (via Joyce and Lawrence), and considerable bravado and whimsicality—these provide much of the ground for Miller's famous "obscenity." (p. 21)
By withdrawing in mind from the immediate scene while yet physically partaking of it, he reaches an "epileptic" clarity of dissociation in which memory and reverie so obliterate present time that he has a feeling of "hair-trigger eternity" in which "everything was justified, supremely justified." In prose re-creation this quasi-religious state, a kind of self-induced hypnosis which Miller repeatedly searches for, comes out as a swirling rhetoric around an incongruously elaborated image. Miller rages, once again, about the disparity between gross physical fact and man's ideal aspirations—roses in the dung, cockroach priests and phantom hosts, and bilious ideas obscuring the horrendous truth…. (p. 23)
[Fragmentation] is central to Miller's art. He aptly speaks of his responses as "schizophrenic"; his fractured sensibility provides many of his distinctive insights and properly reflects his twentieth-century world. Disparate conjunctions provide his affirmations…. [Fragmentary] caricatures seem to be more a result of Miller's sensibility than of the actual-life prototypes on whom he had a continuous, though hostile, dependency. While the kaleidoscopic treatment of people in Tropic of Cancer provides some of the distinctive torrential whirl of the book, it also becomes a solipsism that often leaves the art—and the reader—awkwardly dangling. Miller's amoral quest for personal identity affirms the most fundamental and genuine alienation. (pp. 27-30)
Part of Miller's charm is that his egomania and silliness are so gross, so simple-minded, and so uncensored as to be poignant. His quaintness also comes out in his love of shabby hotels and just as shabby people—an easy exoticism for anything which has "an aroma of the past."… (p. 65)
Miller's most distinctive qualities are the iconoclasm, exuberance, hyperbole, directness, physicality, amoralism, alienation, and utopianism of the true American, especially when confronted with the cultural religiosity of the recreant European. That confrontation provides some of Miller's best writing—the dramatization of the gay renegade. But as Miller takes himself with increasing seriousness as a man of letters, a defender of the European heritage, and as a sage of the traditional unitary vision, his own unique qualities are obfuscated. As a buffoonish outsider, Miller has something to tell us; as a propagandist for art and religion, almost nothing. (p. 67)
Miller's attempt to give his life cosmic shape, or at least to re-create with an imitation of divine plenitude, becomes a megalomania…. He partly presents that plan in Tropic of Capricorn. (p. 69)
So much of Miller depends on the elaboration of the Brooklyn-boy sensibility of two generations ago, of the lower and lower-middle-class American male ethos, that it can hardly be overemphasized. (p. 84)
The occasional satiric shrewdness and the endless self-indulgence characterize a garrulous joker gone on too long in telling the anecdotes of his one passion: his desire to transcend a narrow American ethos. But he has fallen back into being just one of those boys from Brooklyn. (p. 87)
Miller writes to purge his failures as a human being—not to understand or to transform into a meaningful structure but explosively to unload in bursts of heightened language. At times he grows pretentious in the process: Capricorn is "the equivalent of that Purgatory which Dante has described" (he also compares Cancer to Dante's Inferno and his Big Sur writings to a description of Paradise). Actually, a kind of schizophrenic verbal gesturing remains central. (pp. 106-07)
Miller's literary revolt was less a negation of Puritanism and Philistinism and Americanism than of the restrained style, genteel sensibility, and understatement so essential to the main Anglo-Saxon literary traditions. Miller adapts more folkish traditions of direct and outrageous humor, full of obscene and blasphemous energy, into literature. And this humor is drastically antithetical in tone and appeal to the prevailing castrated amusement of the mass media or to the impotent urbanity of cultivated wryness (à la New Yorker). (p. 124)
In all of this writing Miller regularly makes pious affirmations of life over literature while he is actually and even pedantically exalting literature over life. The crux of this literary solipsism may most simply be explained as a series of deeply imbedded puns, a magical naming which is part of the widespread literary theology of our times. It is the method by which Miller can resolve his surface contradictions of literature and life. In brief, it goes something like this: "Art" means knowledge and writing; therefore, writing is knowledge. "To imagine" means to realize and to pretend; therefore, to pretend is to realize. "Creator" means god and artist; therefore, the artist is god. And so on. Once we recognize the hidden puns in the rhetoric, this contradiction of Miller's alternately exaggerated claims for art, artists, and imagination, and his violent disavowals of literature for "direct experience of life" disappear. He wishes to suppress the more mundane, bookish, intellectual side of the rhetoric to exalt its religiosity. (pp. 142-43)
Miller started, as it were, with an apocalyptic "kick in the pants" at the dubious and dying heroic verities. To fill the void left by the collapsed idealisms, he turned out a vast and miscellaneous stream of boozy egotistical verbiage which included a small stream of good iconoclastic and comic rhetoric. Where his pyrotechnical style and buffoonish gesturing come together, he produced, I believe, work of intrinsic merit. But when he played the self-aggrandizing fundamentalist of the imagination, he produced only the blagueur man of letters and the cornball literary saint. (p. 153)
Miller importantly contributed to the increasingly dominant and major poetic-naturalistic American styles—surreal, obscene, fantastic, iconoclastic, learned, colloquial, lavish, and desperate—which, in their mixing of low and high elements, provide an increased richness of language and awareness…. Miller's intrinsic merit as well as his significant contribution is in extreme comedy…. [While] Miller is a minor writer, he may—in his best work—have a major relevance. (pp. 156-57)
Miller's main creation, I suggest, is the rhetoric of grotesquerie. In a sense there is little behind this rhetoric—not much dramatic world of autonomous characters and patterns, not any major moral or social engagement, and not a unique way of knowledge or of life-style. His distinctive quality may be the Americanization of the literature of the absolute rebellion in which defiance is modified by bumptiousness, bombast by candor, extremity by geniality, nastiness by earnestness, and so on. In short, Miller's American ordinariness does qualify him from the extreme explorers of sensibility; he is a buffoonish version of the great tradition. The mindloose and fancy-wild American talker, he transcends the fatally ordinary family, ethos, and self—and our perplexing, threatening, and dubious world—by his eloquent and grandiloquent gestures. Miller's rhetoric becomes his one identity, hiding as well as holding his irregular insights…. The topsy-turvy gesture is all; but it is sufficient to be a suggestive and amusing affirmation of the lively human. (pp. 158-59)
Kingsley Widmer, in his Henry Miller, Twayne, 1963.
Miller is only marginally a novelist. Indeed, he is perhaps best seen as an anti-novelist…. Miller is his own hero: Tropic of Cancer is a fragment of autobiography dealing with his life in Paris in the early thirties. He is writing a book and is very poor, at times almost at the starvation level. He sponges on rich American expatriates for meals and is not above picking up a few francs by pimping…. But the structure of events scarcely matters. What is much more important is the tone of the book and Miller's attitude towards life, which is anarchic in a way that has now become familiar. Civilization, he cries, is doomed; the only realities are sex and art…. In my view, Tropic of Cancer is obscene in the simplest sense; but it is anything but pornographic: a book less aphrodisiac it is scarcely possible to imagine…. By making his characters concerned almost exclusively with sex, Miller reduces them to the condition of automata, and men behaving like machines are always comic.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 180-81
Henry Miller is not only a writer, he is a phenomenon. His life, his creed, his motives, and his work are all of interest to an enormous public…. During the years when he was struggling for recognition Miller became a legendary character, a kind of folk hero, the Paul Bunyan of literature, larger than life as exile, bohemian, and rebel, the great champion of freedom of expression and other lost causes. He appealed to highbrows and lowbrows alike, although in the early years his admirers were not always able to obtain his works…. [He] is the original beatnik and Zen saint—in this as in so many other ways thirty years ahead of his followers…. He is in fact a genuine anarchist a confirmed enemy of society, constitutionally opposed to any system. (pp. 5-7)
Whether or not Miller can be regarded as a satirist, there can be no doubt about what he is against. He is radically anti-bourgeois, anti-white-Nordic-Protestant, and … anti-American. He is utterly opposed to the bourgeois ethic of work and wealth. To him Christianity is bankrupt, the American dream a nightmare. What he hates most in America is the utilitarian cult of progress, efficiency, and the machine, all of which he sees as dehumanizing, soul-destroying forces. He is anti-Utopian because he does not believe in economic or political solutions. He is anti-civilization, to such a point that "civilization" is a dirty word in his vocabulary. (p. 9)
In his attitudes he is a close successor to D. H. Lawrence; his experiences have led him to Lawrence's conclusions. He shares Lawrence's vision of humanity being ground apart by the machine; his response closely resembles that of Lawrence, Dionysian, anti-intellectual, instinctive; he turns to the same life-giving sources, art, religion, and sex…. Miller is easily recognized as an apostle of art and sex, but the religious element may be harder to detect in his work. By conventional standards he is immoral, profane, and blasphemous…. What he means by God and religion is often hard to determine, because he is so completely eclectic in his views. Often in his early works, God means simply the divine afflatus or self-fulfillment. And religion, especially in his later works, can include anything that might loosely be labeled mysticism or metaphysics…. And in religion as in everything else he remains a hedonist, an anarchist, and a humorist; this combination makes it particularly difficult for more conventional minds to accept Miller as a religious person.
Sex is of course the most controversial element in his work; it assumes many forms and serves many purposes. Sometimes it is purely gratuitous, mere bawdy storytelling, but at other times it is symbolic. At its most meaningful sex serves as the most powerful weapon against the system he is attacking. It is the life-force, the only force that can rescue man from the machine: (pp. 9-11)
Miller writes in two main genres. His work is about evenly divided between narrative and expository modes. He is best known for his narrative works, such as the early Tropics. Critics have usually treated these books as novels, because Miller's method is that of fiction, but he has always insisted that he is writing autobiography or "autobiographical romances." They might best be described as confessions and the method as picaresque. They are confessions in Rousseau's sense of the word, introspective, autobiographical monologues; like Rousseau, Miller is usually trying to argue a thesis from his personal experience.
The expository writings are harder to classify. They would usually be defined as essays, but they assume a variety of forms: letters, criticism, travel portraiture, anecdote; reminiscence, opinion. The personal essay admits plenty of latitude, which Miller has taken, incorporating a good deal of narrative technique. (pp. 19-20)
[Miller's] final place has yet to be determined, but he is being generally recognized as one of the important writers of his time, one of the most expressive of the thirties, and certainly the best surrealist writer America has produced. And while it is hard to imagine that the Tropics will ever be taught in the schools, several of his books should occupy a lasting place in American literature. (p. 43)
George Wickes, in his Henry Miller ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 56), University of Minnesota Press, © 1966 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
Miller sees himself as a Patagonian, a literary gangster; and the great modern movement represented by Eliot, Joyce, and Proust remains alien to him…. Instead, Miller turns to the hellions of our age: "I owe much to the Dadaists and Surrealists. I prefer the French writers who are un-French." If it is not obvious what Miller owes to the Dadaists, it is clear that he was one of the first writers—Lawrence may be another—to make a break with the tradition of the modern and to establish an outlook more "schismatic" than any adopted by the literary masters of his day. Every subject Miller touches—art, history, civilization, religion—is fired by his sense of outrage and transfigured by his hope of apocalypse. (p. 29)
Henry Miller, who has survived both Faulkner and Hemingway, is finally honored in his country; and his influence on the contemporary American imagination is slowly spreading. Miller, of course, has been a cause célèbre abroad—in France, in Japan—for three decades…. His work, we know, fits none of the usual categories of American literary history. Written mainly against the background of the thirties, it echoes the raucous note of private disillusionment fashionable in the twenties. (p. 35)
In his work, the physical body of men and women is anatomized only to be finally transcended; obscenity is a voice of celebration. Obscenity is also a mode of purification, a way of cleansing human sensibilities from the sludge of dogma, the dross of hypocrisy. Furthermore, obscenity seeks to recover the original power of language; it searches for the sexual and sacramental roots of metaphor. (p. 37)
Miller may be a cosmological writer or a celestial clown; his star may be part of the galaxy of men who looked down on the twentieth century with dark portent. Nevertheless, his star glows with a peculiarly American light. We know that he rejected America vehemently, calling it an air-conditioned nightmare, a glittering pie, a cancer of sameness, a foetus smoking a cigar…. Yet there is no doubt that Miller belongs to a distinct American tradition. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman—authors Miller idolized—are fathers to this brash child. He venerates, even as he shares with them, their clear concern with spirit, their urgent sense of Being. He takes joy in their anarchy and self-reliance and in their generous capacity for love. He exults in their democratic availability to experience and their prophetic distrust of power. (p. 45)
[What] finally distinguishes Miller is a peculiarly American attitude, generous, violent, prodigal toward both art and life. In his radical innocence, he sees as much truth in harlot or wife, stray object or charged symbol, seeing that everything points to, and beyond, itself to the ground of being. Cancer, which begins as a dirge to Western civilization, ends therefore as a hymn to natural man. The life of the book is in its savage texture, the pulsing surface of a rowdy and occasionally nasty egoism. For the egoism is undoubtedly there, marring the sacramental view. (p. 67)
The cycle of death and rebirth is the eternal theme of Miller's song of himself. Quite often, the cycle is less elemental than sentimental. But in The Colossus, myth and personal history meet, and the integrity of light after long darkness is made palpable…. The resistance to easy flights and vacillations of the spirit is the secret virtue of the book. It is as if Miller had felt that in Argos the rising line of his life reached its height and that his fiction must render this entrusted moment in classic simplicity. Thus The Colossus of Maroussi resolves whatever Tropic of Cancer left unresolved. (p. 84)
The final impression Miller leaves in [his] late books … is mixed. More reconciled to his great bogey country, America, less angry than garrulous, comic egomaniac from the land of Sacher-Masoch, his language hobbled by trite colloquialisms, his illusions about love and his japes about art unceasing, Miller can still persuade us that he is a psalmist celebrating the motleyed life of a local scene or the vaster life that our spirit touches, howsoever meanly. And his people, though sicklied over by the cast of memory, step up to take their place among the jocose company of bleeding, sweating, cursing humanity, mating and eating. (p. 108)
Ihab Hassan, in his The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett (© 1967 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Knopf, 1967.
If it appears perverse to suggest that in many ways Miller represents a nineteenth- and twentieth-century transformation of American Puritanism, it does so, I suspect, largely because of the celebrated question of his obscenity. One might wish to say that the issue of obscenity is in no way fundamental to Miller's work; and though one can almost say that, one cannot quite. For if Miller's use of obscenity is the most overt sign of his apparent rejection of the Puritan ethic, it is at the same time the covert revelation of the incompleteness of that rejection….
In some ways Miller's obscenity is the most nearly innocent aspect of his art. The words he uses—the so-called Anglo-Saxon or four-letter words—we all know, else we would not be shocked by them. It is not a moral question, but a social one. If we are shocked by Miller's language, we are shocked not because our morality has been threatened but because our social standing has been; we are forced to confront and to admit the vital existence of one whose social standing appears lower than our own—one who would use such language, and so affront polite society. Thus snobbery subsumes morality, taboo overrides reason, and we are revealed to ourselves in all our cultural primitivism. We are made uncomfortable.
But though the language Miller uses is probably the basis for the widespread censorship of his books in this country, there are other pornographic techniques in Miller that are equally useful to his intention. Aside from the words, the sexuality and scatology found in Miller are of two sorts. First is that which is found with some frequency in the rather long, arty, and often irrelevant surrealistic fantasies that interrupt the narratives and expositions. By and large, such passages are so badly done that we have a hard time taking them seriously. Second, and more characteristic, are the sexual exploits that Miller attributes to himself in the autobiographical romances. And even these passages are strangely innocent; for they have that pathetic braggadocio and exaggeration of the lower-middle-class masculine world of the deprived adolescent (ugly, relentlessly shy, or merely poor) who finds himself outside the easy security of the promises of his society, and thus is committed to longing, talk, and the compensations of imagining.
When Miller is not indulging himself in quasi-surrealist nightmare sequences, or in the half-fantasies of symptomatic longing, his attitudes toward sex are almost embarrassingly moral, though not necessarily conventional….
Miller as a writer is guilty of virtually every major fault that it is possible for a writer to be guilty of. Stylistically, his work is a botch: he is incredibly prolix and repetitive, and many of his best effects are lost in jungles of approximate language…. He has almost no sense of structure, in either his longer or his shorter works: his work suffers from literary giantism, or disproportion, and one often has the dark suspicion that a passage is long or short, according to whether or not Miller might have been interrupted while writing it; and his solutions to structural problems are naïve to an extreme degree….
He is incapable of constructing a dramatic scene, and he has no sense of character—except his own—and no ability to transmit the sense of another human being—except himself—to his reader. He is at his worst when he is most serious—that is, when he wishes his "ideas" to be taken seriously,—ideas which are, beneath the sometimes outrageous verbiage, so commonplace and old-fashioned as to be almost bewildering….
But after all this has been duly noted, and after we have read Miller, none of it seems really to matter; for cautious as we may be, we are left with the disturbing suspicion that we have been in the presence of an authentic genius, though a genius unlike any we have encountered in literature before. For in one respect, at least, we must take Miller at his word: he is not engaged in the act of writing literature. His work is, indeed, at bottom anti-literary, and anti-literary in a profound way that the Dadaists—those cultivated, highly educated, most humorous nihilists—could never have understood.
Miller's task has been, quite simply, to reveal himself, and to reveal himself as immediately and fully as his time and energy will allow him to do. Himself is the only subject he has ever had, and most of the time he has had the wit to know this, and not to pretend otherwise, at least to himself.
John Williams, "Henry Miller: The Success of Failure," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 225-45.
Some writers live lives, others live legends. Henry Miller is certainly one of the latter…. The legend was certainly aided—aside from the picture of glorious Bohemianism and swinging sexuality—by the difficulties Miller had in being published by the constant censorship and almost continuous litigation, especially throughout the early and middle sixties…. I doubt that any of us could have honestly evaluated one of Miller's works, bound as we were to defend them against all Philistines who thought that four-letter words and sex were anything but the purest expressions of humanity. Most of all he lived out our fantasies, enacting for us all those impulses we had painfully learned to alienate….
Once the books were legitimate, they ceased being a threat. And with this transformation we had, for the first time, to read Miller the way we had to read anyone else. His books had to stand or fall on their own merits; they could not borrow value from the circumstances of their publication….
What is becoming more apparent with time is that Henry Miller will be left to us only as a writer of brilliant fragments in which his impassioned rhetoric somehow finds an objective correlative in what he is describing: fragments such as "Reunion in Brooklyn" and "Max and the White Phagocytes" or a rare book like The Colossus of Maroussi.
Michael J. Hoffman, "Yesterday's Rebel," in Western Humanities Review, Summer, 1970, pp. 271-74.
Much of Miller's writing reads like … an endless gush of reminiscence about personal acquaintances whom he knows well, but who are never introduced to the reader and are sometimes hardly credible. Some of them appear in full light, and are drawn in vivid detail, and then vanish for ever. Others fly into the story and out again in a few moments, like a bat in a night-lit garage. Neither Tropic of Cancer nor its sequel Tropic of Capricorn is a novel in any ordinary sense: that is, a story with a coherent plot developed in time, and a cast of characters interacting with one another. They are sections of a non-stop monologue going on in Miller's head. Basically, this monologue is like the gabble of [a] drunkard on [a] train, but with two important additions. One is that its style, its use of language, is marvelous. The other is that its subject matter rises far higher than that of the average monologist and also sinks far lower. Much of it consists of rhapsodic prose poems about Life, and Art, and Individuality, and the Horrors of the Modern World, and so forth: crabby, opinionated, half-educated, not very original but very forceful in the good old tradition of the village rebel and the street-corner atheist. Much of the rest is conversation so filthy that it is never heard outside prisons, barrack rooms, and the lowest slums: together with brilliantly vivid narratives of mean and degrading actions. It is often very funny, at least to men. Taken as a whole, it makes you detest and despise Henry Miller (or the fictional narrator, if there is a difference). You try to pity him, but you cannot. Not at first; less and less as the books proceed; perhaps not ever. He likes being despised, and telling despicable things about himself.
Henry Miller is a rhetorician. He knows that the exordium is important. His books and his separate chapters begin dramatically, pungently. Style, style, style: brushwork, the drive of the hand into the clay, the thrust of the lines of structure against one another, the movement of the phrase between keys and modes, the balance and rivalry of colors, the rise and fall and rhythm of an actor's voice—style is a chief aim of all good artists in all media. This Henry Miller has achieved: he is a wonderful stylist, and also (as represented by his fictional narrator) a filthy swine.
Spontaneous, his style appears to be. He writes prose which often seems to run quite naturally, like the flow of eager conversation or a rapidly written letter or the current of nonlogical ideas in one's own mind. If in the future he is remembered for anything more than his interest in low life, he will be recalled as an agile, often graceful, sometimes powerful manipulator of word and phrase and sentence and paragraph, and sometimes (although less often) of those larger units which are called chapters.
Gilbert Highet, "Miller's, 'Tropics'" (© 1971 by Gilbert Highet; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), in his Explorations, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 209-15.
Though he disavows either a literary aim or a learned technique, [Henry] Miller belongs to the logorrheal tradition of Rabelais and Sterne…. He becomes a wordy bore only when he finds it necessary to prophesy; that great American disease we can call vatism is in him as it is in Dahlberg and even Mailer. When Miller starts talking about Love, not amour. I feel like giving him a few francs to go to a brothel….
Miller has spent a long industrious life grinding slow and exceeding fine, also coarse. He is a world literary figure, and it is proper to ask where—apart from the long-banned candor—his achievement lies. With whom shall we compare him—Lawrence? Joyce? Beckett? He is not as important as any of these because he has not created a world that is recognizably his own. He has not really created at all. He lacks architectonic skill, a making or shaping drive. He has had only one real subject—himself—and he has not been prepared, or endowed with the ability, to convert himself into a great fictional myth. Called a novelist by some, he has the novelist's ear and eye but not the novelist's power to create great separable artifacts. He has done what any man with his endowments and deficiencies is forced to do—produce autobiography that begs at the door of fiction.
Anthony Burgess, in New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 2, 1972, pp. 1, 10-11.
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