Miller, Henry 1891–
A self-proclaiming, Rabelaisian solipsist, Miller is a Brooklyn-born expatriate who has lived in Paris during most of his productive life. He is the author of The Tropic of Cancer, The Tropic of Capricorn, and the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
It is rare for Henry Miller not to be speaking about himself. Even in a short work on a precise and limited subject, such as A Devil in Paradise, he is unable to avoid wandering into digressions which remind us that the only theme dear to this author is his own person, his obsessions, his secrets. A person who always ends by slipping into the foreground and by imposing on us the fantasies of his personal delirium. An ordered delirium, worked into shape, and turning into wisdom. Images caught in the trap of writing without losing any of their abundance but with their noxiousness removed, thanks to this planned metamorphosis. There are many contemporary writers for whom literature is a personal therapy. Henry Miller is one of those who owe their health to their works….
No reader ought to contest the legitimacy of the sexual lyricism of a great part of his creative work, an obscenity so powerful that it consumes itself in order to attain a kind of absolute purity. One reason for this is that first of all, we cannot, without being hypocritical, take exception to the description of a reality familiar enough in our private lives. Furthermore, Miller paid very dearly for the right to express himself in the way that he found best and most suitable for what he had to say.
Claude Mauriac, "Henry Miller," in his The New Literature, translated by Samuel I. Stone (George Braziller, Inc.: from The New Literature by Claude Mauriac; reprinted with permission of the publisher; copyright © 1959 by George Braziller, Inc.), Braziller, 1959, pp. 51-9.
Henry Miller is obviously not for every reader. He is a difficult, deficient, and outrageous writer. He ought to be approached, if not with sympathy, at least with some awareness of what it is he is trying to do. The fully achieved artistic experiences—the verbal mastery, the humor, the extended narratives, the imaginative visions—can be, when plucked from their surroundings, rich and satisfying enough. For those who are prepared, however, the really enlarging experience will be that of the man himself. There isn't likely to be such another.
David Littlejohn (1962), in his Interruptions (copyright © 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, pp. 37-44.
Henry Miller is the (not the typical but the noticeable) American in Europe: quintessentially, the American in Paris. When he turns writer (the character called Henry Miller is a writer, too—the books in which he is a character are his work), he wants to epitomise his emotions towards Paris. His emotions can be described as warm, human and from the guts. He does not believe in the discipline of art but writes in a near-automatic state, as though taking down dictation from his guts. He is confident the results will be valuable, because he has a deep faith (the faith which persuaded him no one else had ever visited the Uffizi/Pitti) in his originality. In his creative trance, he rolls the paper into the machine and, convinced no one else has ever brought forth any such idea, types: 'Tropic of Cancer, p. 209. Paris is like a whore.'…
Almost the only claim of Henry Miller's which is justified is that he is honest about sex....
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No one could accuse him of making it falsely attractive to the reader for whose natural susceptibilities he shews so little consideration. To his credit, neither does he use sex to seduce the reader into sadism, such violence as he describes being of the legitimate, purely erotic kind which occurs between consenting—indeed craving—adults. It is not in writing about sex, it is sheerly inwriting, that honesty proves an insufficient policy. All very well to be so literal-mindedly honest that you disdain to learn the skill necessary to making an artistic effect: but then your honest course is not to write. What makes Henry Miller not a mere neutral but an enemy of art is that he disdains the skill and yet screams unskilfully that he has succeeded in becoming a great writer without really trying.
Brigid Brophy, "Henry Miller" (1963), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 231-38.
[Plexus] is the work of a man who has no care or thought for the words he uses…. Perhaps what the book has to say is of such importance that the atrocious manner of saying it can be forgiven, if not forgotten? That is not the case, even if we are prepared to regard the author's personality with his own reverent seriousness….
If it is granted that the bulk of Mr. Miller's writing is cliché-ridden, repetitious and boring, and preoccupied with himself to the verge of egomania ('I am the hero and the book is myself', he wrote once about Tropic of Cancer, and the remark is even truer of his later work), how does it happen that he has ever been taken seriously? To this question there is a double answer. The first part of it rests in the nature of Tropic of Cancer and the time at which it was published, the second in the difference between Henry Miller the man and Henry Miller the writer.
In 1934, when it was published in Paris, Tropic of Cancer was a revolutionary work…. Put against what was stalely moralistic or narrowly political in the European writing of the time, what Henry Miller had to say—or rather, the personality he had to express—looked wonderfully fresh and vigorous…. Several novelists are as outspoken as was Henry Miller in the 1930s, and an awareness of sex as comic or ridiculous is common. But it remains true that Tropic of Cancer and one or two of the other books that appeared before the war, in particular Max and the White Phagocytes (1938), are very much better than anything Mr. Miller has written since. They are less diffuse and egocentric, and they also exploit much more effectively the brutal comic vein that is Henry Miller's original contribution to literature. The comedy is that of the bum who cocks a snook at a benefactor with one hand while extracting notes from his wallet with the other. The joyful, deliberate outraging of 'good taste' is commonplace today, but few writers have savaged the respectable as successfully as Mr. Miller. Those who called Tropic of Cancer an original and startling work in the context of its time have no reason to repent their words.
Julian Symons, "Goodbye, Henry Miller" (1963), in his Critical Occasions, Hamish Hamilton, 1966, pp. 126-32.
Miller is … primarily a rejector; in [Tropic of Cancer] there flowers that germ of nihilism present from the beginning in the Romantic culture. What, it may be asked, are those positive, moral, vitalising suggestions that so many persons of authority have found in his book? They seem to amount to repeated assertions that the ecstasy of artists can bring health to the cancerous mass he describes; that out of the modern jungle in which he says he walks, 'a lean and hungry hyena,' may come a new Jerusalem. His Paris is a Babylon big with this apocalyptic city; in fact, since it serves as a symbol of these two antithetical establishments, Paris has in the book an ambiguity which Miller, so far as I can see, does nothing to resolve. Often it sounds like Baudelaire in a bad translation….
Miller, obviously, can write, as Orwell claimed; but he rarely bothers to. Whether or not you think it worth rummaging through Cancer in search of those golden pages … really depends upon how you like your wisdom served. To my mind, the scattered logia which the Millerite view prefers to more formal communication amount anyway to a group of second-hand attitudes only occasionally galvanised by some happy audacity of phrase. I don't feel life in this book which is so famous for having it; and I sympathise with those friends of the narrator who made him feel 'a sort of atavistic remnant, a romantic shred, a soulful Pithecanthropus erectus.' Orwell admiringly calls Miller 'Whitman among the corpses.'… I don't think this is quite right. Whitman, after all, spent some time among real corpses, and seems to have known the difference between them and the living.
Frank Kermode, "Jonah" (1963), in his Continuities (© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by Frank Kermode; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1968, pp. 157-61.
[The] style of [Henry] Miller's books—his particular ideal of bad writing as an earnest of sincerity—was, in its pursuit of the garrulous and the centrifugal, quite different from the dogmatic and straightforward meagerness to which bad proletarian novels aspired. The anti-structure of his books, too, seemed unsympathetic to readers accustomed to the highly structured class-struggle novel, rigid, almost, as the Western story, because, like that popular genre, it denied personal expression in favor of ritual and cliché. In place of the mythos of the proletarian romance (the conflict of forces, the eruption of violence, the inevitable defeat of the preferred cause, and the conversion in the midst of defeat), Miller provided only erotic daydreams, broken by shrill exhortations to freedom, freedom not from economic exploitation but from conventional morality and from politics itself. Finally, however, it was his euphoria, his unrelenting hilarity, which baffled an era that could never manage to embody in its literature the optimism appropriate to its hope of social revolution….
Miller … has not merely survived long enough to be admired for certain older books which seemed in their own time offensively irrelevant, but to feel obliged to write new ones, in particular the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion, which he speaks of as the last, the ultimate as well as the final, work of his life. He has felt obliged, that is to say, to be reborn as most Thirties writers have not….
Miller is the laureate or, better, the prophet of the new personalism, and hence the first important self-consciously anti-tragic writer in America. It is a little misleading, all the same, to speak of him as a comic writer without further qualification, though he is howlingly funny, both intentionally (in the perhaps one-quarter of his books where he is at his best) and unintentionally (in the three-quarters where his self-awareness breaks down or his naïve susceptibility to pseudo-philosophy and mantic posturing takes over). What is funny in him, however, is rooted neither in social satire, whether directed against the deviant individual, like, say, Pope's, or a whole society, like G. B. Shaw's, nor in a vision of the total absurdity of mankind, like Chaucer's or, more recently, Samuel Beckett's. Miller's is the humor of mocking gossip, rooted in the kind of betrayal of friends … in which many men and most women delight to indulge in private, but which committed to cold, public print scandalizes and disturbs us, as all revelations of the self we fear others see and hope they do not scandalize and disturb us.
Leslie A. Fiedler, "The Beginning of the Thirties: Depression, Return, and Rebirth," in his Waiting for the End (copyright © 1964 by Leslie A. Fiedler; from the book Waiting for the End; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day, Publishers), Stein & Day, 1964, pp. 32-50.
Right off, it must be noted that only a total egotist could have written a book [Sexus] which has no subject other than Henry Miller in all his sweet monotony. Like shadows in a solipsist's daydream, the other characters flit through the narrative, playing straight to the relentless old exhibitionist whose routine has not changed in nearly half a century. Pose one: Henry Miller, sexual athlete. Pose two: Henry Miller, literary genius and life force. Pose three: Henry Miller and the cosmos (they have an understanding). The narrative is haphazard. Things usually get going when Miller meets a New Person at a party. New Person immediately realizes that this is no ordinary man. In fact, New Person's whole life is often changed after exposure to the hot radiance of Henry Miller. For opening the door to Feeling, Miller is then praised by New Person in terms which might turn the head of God—but not the head of Henry Miller, who notes each compliment with the gravity of the recording angel. If New Person is a woman, then she is due for a double thrill. As a lover, Henry Miller is a national resource, on the order of Yosemite National Park. Later, exhausted by his unearthly potency, she realizes that for the first time she has met Man … one for whom post coitum is not triste but rhetorical. When lesser men sleep, Miller talks about the cosmos, the artist, the sterility of modern life….
Now there is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of bookmaking. The literature of self-confession has always had an enormous appeal, witness the not entirely dissimilar successes of Saints Augustine and Genet. But to make art of self-confession it is necessary to tell the truth. And unless Henry Miller is indeed God (not to be ruled out for lack of evidence to the contrary), he does not tell the truth. Everyone he meets either likes or admires him, while not once in the course of Sexus does he fail in bed….
Interlarded with sexual bouts and testimonials are a series of prose poems in which the author works the cosmos for all it's worth. The style changes noticeably during these arias. Usually Miller's writing is old-fashioned American demotic, rather like the prose of one of those magazines Theodore Dreiser used to edit. But when Miller climbs onto the old cracker barrel, he gets very fancy indeed. Sentences swell and billow, engulfing syntax. Arcane words are put to use, often accurately: ectoplasmic, mandibular, anthropophagous, terrene, volupt, occipital, fatidical. Not since H. P. Lovecraft has there been such a lover of language. Then, lurking pale and wan in this jungle of rich prose, are the Thoughts….
It is significant that Miller has had a considerable effect on a number of writers better than himself—George Orwell, Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, to name three at random—and one wonders why. Obviously his personality must play a part. In the letters to Durrell he is a most engaging figure. Also, it is difficult not to admire a writer who has so resolutely gone about his own business in his own way without the slightest concession to any fashion. And though time may have turned the Katzenjammer Kid into Foxy Grandpa, the old cheerful anarchy remains to charm.
Finally, Miller helped make a social revolution. Forty years ago it was not possible to write candidly of sexual matters. The door was shut. Then the hinges were sprung by D. H. Lawrence, and Miller helped kick it in…. Henry Miller fought the good fight, for which he deserves not only our gratitude but a permanent place of honor in that not inconsiderable company which includes such devoted figures as Havelock Ellis, Alfred M. Kinsey, and Marie C. Stopes.
Gore Vidal, "The Sexus of Henry Miller" (1965), in his Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship (copyright © 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Gore Vidal; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co.), Little, Brown, 1969.
The plain truth is that, unbanned, Tropic of Cancer is not very interesting. In Paris, Miller made what he calls "the heroic descent to the very bowels of the earth, the dark and fearsome sojourn in the belly of the whale." He came up, however, not reborn like Jonah or Jesus, but the same old Brooklyn adolescent. "Art consists in going the full length," Miller writes. He could not be more wrong. Art may deal with the whole range of experience, but it consists in ordering that experience by means of form. It is thus a moral act, the replacing of disorder with order. It is in that sense, a want of craft, that Tropic of Cancer is an immoral book, not in the scenes on which it casts the beam of its dim little flashlight.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Innocence of Henry Miller," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 12-16.
[Miller] is not a thinker of originality or depth. He simply has not the equipment. His is a better than average intellect, but undisciplined, shallow, and immature, immature like a greenwood violin. He has not the mental discipline or muscle required for prolonged, deep, rigorous thought, nor the maturity of intellectual imagination, the patience, the broad vision of a real creative thinker. He is too devoted by turns, moreover, to romantic unreason; and far too indiscriminate in his judgments, too dilettantish in his momentary passions to be even a good anticerebral mystic….
There is an a priori point from which all analyses of the real Henry Miller must begin…. This is what he calls his "self-assurance": ego-awareness raised to such a pitch that I know not its equal in all literature. He is possessed of a baffling, near-absolute conviction of his own genius and importance—a conviction which precedes any achievement or testimonial or ratiocination. It is the unstated presumption beneath all of his works: that I, Henry Miller, matter so much and so obviously that my every word, thought, and action merits publication.
David Littlejohn, "Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus" (1967), in his Interruptions (copyright © 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, pp. 45-72.
Miller's fame as a womanizer doesn't alter the fact that two major continents of feeling inside him lie well off the Playboy map. The first is love of all things proletarian—relish of every breath, corner, and detail of the low-life that upward mobile Bunnymen run hard to escape. And the second, obverse of the first, is hatred of plastic posh, boughten elegance, empty sophistication in the culture at large (contemporary industrial "civilization"). More than one observer has noted that fury at the sanitized society is a primary source of Miller's comic energy….
The most obtrusive evidences of Miller's embrace of the Proletarian Way are "shocking" language, explicitness about physical functions, and determined anti-careerism. But to leave it at that is to miss what matters more: this writer's "low," pugnacious, yet nevertheless in no sense absurd faith in reductiveness—back-alley, mocking negativism—as an instrument of truth….
Is Henry Miller a sentimental man? Intensely so at times, and guilty of scores of passages of willed, high-flown, derivative gush, as well as of patronizing bits. And the current of clownish anti-intellectualism flowing in his books has had ill effects on more than a few writers of contemporary reputation—Norman Mailer among them. But at his best he's an American original, respecting the bottom dog's harsh moral clarities, spying out truth from below. At this moment the energies of democratization for which he's been a kind of bad-boy laureate for decades are far from defunct. And their future, for all that Henry Miller and the rest of us know, could still, despite everything, be tremendous.
Benjamin DeMott, "Henry Miller: Rebel-Clown at Eighty," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, December 11, 1971; used with permission), December 11, 1971, pp. 29-32.
The real disappointment [of My Life and Times] is Miller's willingness to be worshipped as a hero. He worked with practically no reward from before the time he took his first trip to Paris in 1928 until after the second world war. Even when he found out at the end of the war that $40,000 in royalties had accumulated for him, he couldn't be bothered to go to Paris to collect it. Now, 25 years and many thousands of dollars away from poverty, Miller consents to have a coffee-table book made of his life. It is almost a caricature of his past, being served up now on glossy pages by the American publisher with long ears, the Playboy Press….
It all seems tailor-made for the Playboy audience, full of hints on how an artist operates, combined with a Puritanism that Miller never bothered with before and the final touch of disingenuous advice, be yourself. But somehow, there is still a remnant of dignity in Miller's capitulation to the pornography industry. He is still the self-confident little hustler who defies respectable opinion and lets Hugh Hefner make a picture book out of him. He is not even embarrassed to show off his mediocre paintings, which only serve to ridicule his romantic notion that art is what an artist decides to do.
Frank Lipsius, "Playboy Henry Miller," in Books and Bookmen, June, 1972, pp. 44-5.