Henry Miller Miller, Henry (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miller, Henry 1891–

Miller is a self-educated American novelist, essayist, and critic who has long been involved with searching for truth and freedom. Many of his best-known and most controversial works, such as Tropic of Cancer and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, are autobiographical; in them he describes his quest, which culminates in a rejection of modern civilization, but with an eventual realization about personal truth. Karl Shapiro says of him, "As a spiritual example he stands among the great men of our age." However, due perhaps to the frank sexuality and scatological language in his writings, and to his somewhat dissatisfied attitude about America, his reputation has only lately been changing from notorious to influential and well respected. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Paul R. Jackson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer an Emersonian epigraph announces the romanticized autobiography that would become the staple of Miller's art. "These novels," Emerson asserts, "will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experiences, and how to record truth truly." Along with Whitman—"In Whitman the whole American scene comes to life, her past and her future, her birth and her death"—Emerson stands as a clear, if surprising, link to those traditions of American writing that produced the prophetic autobiographer that Miller became….

While Whitman has remained a perennial constant in Miller's literary enthusiasms, Emerson recurs only as a supportive figure in the Americanism that marks the volumes of a writing career that spans at least three decades and that binds the literary expatriate to the artistic roots of his own country. Yet Miller returns to Emerson often enough to suggest an attachment more significant than one would at first suppose. (p. 231)

Miller's indebtedness to general Romantic and Transcendental modes of thought emerges in his prophetic announcements, often with the cadences of a speaking voice reminiscent of that of Emerson himself…. Emerson's emphasis on intuitive understanding with its resultant reliance on childhood experience, dream, and vision is constantly echoed…. [The] ecstatic emerging of the emancipated individual with divine process is dependent, with the insistence of a contemporary Emerson, on self-reliance: "The world would only begin to get something of value from me the moment I stopped being a serious member of society and became—myself! The State, the nation, the united nations of the world, were nothing but one great aggregation of individuals who repeated the mistakes of their forefathers."… (pp. 232-33)

Throughout his career, Miller has been drawn to autobiographical writers of all sorts, and letters, diaries and confessions rank high in those books to which he has enthusiastically responded…. [But it was in] Emerson's Journals and essays [that] Miller found that the divided self of the visionary seer in his long journey of emancipation into life was his subject.

The completeness with which Miller has been willing to confront Emerson's simultaneous levels of selfhood is nowhere better underscored than in one direct borrowing from Emerson's Journals in Sexus. This long autobiographical romance records the trying years of the 1920's; it begins with the turmoil of Miller's first marriage to the Maude of the romances and his initial meeting with Mona, the fictionalized second wife, chronicles his escape from employment with the telegraph company, his early attempts to begin writing, and ends on the night of his second marriage. At the close a life stretches before him that is to be marked by the ambiguities of the trilogy's title. Through the process of personal crucifixion paradoxically will come the new life.

Sexus ends with two parallel fantasies, the first taking place in a burlesque theater on the night of Miller's marriage to Mona. Watching the show unfold and allowing his mind...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)

George Stade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Wear any uniform so long as it's not yours," advises Henry Miller, and the various uniforms of bum, stud, psychopomp, jeremiah, and saint he wears in his books never quite fit the forms and motions we see behind the garb and the gab. The protagonist of his books, name of Henry Miller, describes himself as being such-and-such, and this so-and-so varies from book to book, from passage to passage. But we do not see him as he sees himself. The figure we make out from passage to passage exposes only new lineaments of its eternal consistency. The "I" of his books does not know itself, and what it doesn't know remains pretty much the same. The shiftings of Proteus configure a Prometheus bound to his obsession but sure he is free.

So far, then, we have two Henry Millers, one a wardrobe of costumes, the other their inhabitant. A third Henry Miller is the designer of the costumes, the author holding onto the shirt-tails of his protagonist…. Sometimes the author and the protagonist seem pretty close. "I have moved the type-writer into the next room where I can see myself in the mirror as I write," says the protagonist of Tropic of Cancer. From all the squirms and craning, we gather that the image lacks definition, Dracula eluding his own gaze into the pier-glass. Similarly, the author never sees through his reflections and so has to keep rewriting his single book under numerous titles, always one step behind a protagonist who keeps running in place, but in the very best form. (p. 616)

To this day Henry Miller the author is naive in relation to his protagonist. We can get a more-or-less direct look at the author through his letters, his literary criticism, his social commentary, his philosophizing. He has less grace, poise, aplomb than his protagonist, but he is more solicitous of our admiration; he is not as wise, but more opinionated; not as pure, but also less complicated; less original, but more cranky; not as desperate, but more self-pitying; less terrible, more of a trial; not an unliberated liberator, but a chide.

It is the protagonist we are interested in, rather than the author—the "I," the character written into the books, not the writer, not the costumes the other two write about. Let us call him Henry. Here, in a passage from Tropic of Capricorn …, is Henry's moment of conception:

… in my dream life I frequently changed places with my sister, accepting the tortures inflicted upon her and nourishing them with my supersensitive brain. It was...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)

Lawrence J. Shifreen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miller begins his study [in his series of short fictions Mezzotints] by creating a clichéd image of society as a limiting environment which forces individuals into a patterned existence based on work and sleep. This concept affords no new insights into human nature but is a typical device used in the 1920's by writers who wished to study the "types" of people who inhabit New York. The routine Miller depicts of rising early to go to work and returning home to sleep, shows that he views man as a machine with no power or control over life and the world. (pp. 11-12)

The "Mezzotint," "Dawn Travellers," depicts the Williamsberg, Brooklyn world that Miller knows best…. These "Dawn Travellers" appear to be little more than drones, as Miller borrows Dostoevsky's metaphor of the "ant hill."… (p. 12)

[The] sick reality that characterizes a society of one dimensional people whose lives are monotones and who live in a dead world beneath the earth's surface forms the basis for Miller's term "cancer," an incurable disease that eats away at and destroys our society. The metaphor for this death is the subway, a machine that carries one from the land of the living and deposits one in the grave. This idea obviously haunted Miller's imagination; for, during this same era, his short story "Glittering Pie" uses this same image of death, as a train literally carries men and women to their end. Demise is the harsh reality that one faces again and again at dawn when one becomes a "Dawn Traveller" and perceives one's lot….

The living death the workers experience horrifies Miller, who feels obligated to raise man above his meager lot in life. He accomplishes this transformation by calling him "the Great Beast," "Him," and "He." In each case, man's name is raised in capital letters and praised by the bard who sees man elevated above the role of beast of burden. Miller feels compelled to help men because they are his fellow beings, men who have suffered, like Miller, to attain an "American dream" of success. By "success," Miller does not mean the conventionally accepted better paying job; social prosperity appalls him. What he deems "success" is man's belief in and his attempt to reach his dream. (p. 13)

Besides hope, a second device that Miller uses to escape death's horror is humor. For when he entitles his following "Mezzotint," "If You're Dying, Choose a Mausoleum," he uses this undertaker's advertisement to mock the money making behind American success, a system which he believes finds its basis in undermining one man so that another can monetarily prosper. (pp. 13-14)

The need to find a better way of life comes with the realization that most men and women are takers. These entrepreneurs exploit others for their own personal gain. Such self-oriented beings are metaphorically depicted by Miller in his image of "Circe," the title of another "Mezzotint."… [The] everyday world of the subway [depicted in "Circle"] lacks the development of the images of the sewers and urinals found in Tropic of Cancer, and shows that the Miller who created the Mezzotints could not depict his environment as well as he would nine years later in Tropic…. Neither Tropic nor Mezzotints is a book of dreams. Each recounts the experiences that make up Henry Miller's "reality." For when he talks about the life in the streets of New York and Paris, he cannot couch the spit and urine in artistic images of love and beauty that are totally inapplicable to his life. It is for this reason that Circe cannot be described as having a Greek, Roman, or celestial nose. She must possess a real one and below it a mouth that is "gaping" and "red," for she is...

(The entire section is 1530 words.)

Paul R. Jackson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller announces the extravagant anti-art that will be his theme. Beyond the lice and the cancer of time, beyond hope and convention, Beauty and Art, the auto-hero offers his book as libel and insult, the studied rejection of accepted literary values: "I am going to sing for you," he promises, "a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse." With fractured echoes of Whitman's celebration of the self, the passage insists on its own bellowing song…. If singing here is a last modern echo of Homeric invocation, music more generally becomes an insistant metaphor both for Miller's own discordant lyricism...

(The entire section is 1271 words.)