This Day In Literary History
On December 26th, 1891, the legendary American writer Henry Miller was born. He was born Heinrich Miller in New York City, the son of German immigrant parents. He had an older sister, Lauretta, whose grim fate would be chronicled in his classic autobiographical novel, Black Spring (1936).
As a young boy, Henry Miller proved to be intellectually gifted and an exceptional student, but he disliked his teachers. He educated himself, reading voraciously from a young age. He tried college, but dropped out after one semester.
Miller came of age in New York City's rough and seedy Bowery. He drifted from job to job and became an active member of the American Socialist Party. By 1917, he had landed a long term job at the Western Union Telegraph Company and married his first wife, Beatrice.
Seven years later, in 1924, Miller quit his job and had left his wife for his mistress, a Broadway dancer named June Smith, who would become his second wife. He had determined to become a writer, and June encouraged his literary endeavors.
His first two novels, Clipped Wings (1922) and Moloch, or This Gentile World (1927) were rejected. The latter would be published posthumously in 1992, creating a controversy over some allegedly anti-Semitic passages that were actually comic jabs at his wife June, who was Jewish.
At the time Miller wrote Moloch, or This Gentile World, his relationship with June had deteriorated due to her mental instability. She would leave him for another woman. In 1930, freed from the burden of marriage, he went to Paris.
There, a penniless but happy Henry Miller found work as a proofreader for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune newspaper, thanks to his friend, Austrian writer Alfred Perles, who recognized his talent and supported him.
The literary scene of early 1930s Paris energized Miller's creative juices. He struck up friendships with other writers, including a young woman who would become his close friend, lover, and muse - a Frenchwoman of Danish and Spanish descent named Anaïs Nin.
She and Henry were both struggling, aspiring writers trying to make ends meet, as France had also fallen victim to the Great Depression. They and some of their writer friends soon discovered that they could make around $1 per page writing pornographic literature for an anonymous private collector.
That was the equivalent of $15 per page in today's money; not much today, but good money back then. At first, they wrote erotica just for their own amusement, but soon it became an important source of income during the dark days of the Depression when work was hard to come by.
Believe it or not, for Henry Miller, writing decent erotica in those days was a struggle. Anaïs Nin, however, was brilliant at it. When she let him read her now famous diaries, they were a revelation to him. Her writing had the poetry and passion that his lacked.
An excited Miller began writing a new novel. The muse seized him by the throat and wouldn't let go; as his fingers flew about the keys of his typewriter, he chain-smoked and listened to the jazz or Beethoven that blared out of his Victrola.
He would write as many as 20, 30, or even 45 pages a day. When he completed the manuscript, he and Anaïs Nin both knew he had written something special - a novel that would revolutionize literature as the world knew it and probably land its author in jail for obscenity.
Tropic of Cancer was a novel in the form of a memoir. Combining fiction with autobiography, the novel featured a narrative that alternated between conventional and experimental, combining sober accounts with dazzling stream of consciousness reflections.
Funny, sad, joyous, and mad, passionate and poetic, the novel is rightfully considered a masterpiece. In the opening pages, Miller described the book this way:
It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants of God, Man, Destiny, Time, Beauty... what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse...
One of Miller's dirty corpses was that of his homeland, America. Predicting the uproar over the novel's graphic sexual content, he said:
America will call me the lowest of the low when they see my Cancer. What a laugh I'll have when they begin to spit and fume. I hope they'll learn something about death and futility, about hope, etc. I won't give them a fucking leg to stand on...
Miller was able to get Tropic of Cancer published unexpurgated in Paris in 1934, which was no easy task, even in the liberal, intellectual City of Lights. In his American homeland, the novel was immediately banned as obscene.
Tropic of Cancer would remain banned in the United States for over 30 years, available to American readers only in pirated editions sold under the counter in certain bookshops or on the black market.
Henry Miller followed his classic debut novel with another great book, Black Spring (1936), an autobiographical novel chronicling his childhood and young adulthood, including the haunting fate of his older sister, Lauretta.
Lauretta, a sweet-natured girl who'd been born mildly retarded, was considered an embarrassment and a burden by her parents. As a child and adolescent, she was mostly cared for by her younger brother Henry, who adored her. But her parents ultimately decided to have her locked up.
Forced to live along with raving lunatics in a grim, brutal asylum, Lauretta deteriorated quickly and died young. Henry never forgave his parents for locking her up. He never spoke to them again.
He followed Black Spring with more great novels, among his numerous works are Tropic of Capricorn (1939), The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), and his classic Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy of novels: Sexus (1949), Plexus (1953), and Nexus (1960).
Miller's classic novella Quiet Days in Clichy (1956), often paired with his classic novella length essay The World of Sex (1940), was an autobiographical comic novel based on the author's adventures in early 1930's Paris.
In Quiet Days in Clichy, the narrator and his best friend Carl are two broke, struggling aspiring writers living hand-to-mouth in Paris. They share an apartment and soon acquire another roommate - Colette, a fifteen-year-old French runaway that Carl brings home.
The young girl becomes their housekeeper and lover - until her parents track her down. Meanwhile, the narrator falls in love with two prostitutes, one of whom reminds him of a woman whom he regrets not marrying.
Henry Miller was no pornographer; he didn't write about sex to arouse his readers, he simply and honestly celebrated his sexual life. In his classic essay The World of Sex (1940), he explained that the sex in his writings was the product of the libertine philosophy that he believed in and based his life on.
He blasted the hypocritical American "values" that condemned sex as sinful. Instead of openly accepting and celebrating something as natural and beautiful as sex, Americans would rather decry it as sinful and suppress it, leaving the only outlet for sexual expression to smut peddlers.
Until a landmark censorship trial in 1961 acquitted Tropic of Cancer of obscenity charges, Henry Miller's novels went unseen in America except in pirated editions. That trial took place in the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court and was fought by legendary publisher Barney Rosset of Grove Press.
Three years later, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Ohio State Supreme Court's ruling that Tropic of Cancer was legally obscene, making it possible for all of Henry Miller's novels to be published in America.
Miller would marry three more times. His last great love was Brenda Venus, a young actress and dancer who had once posed for Playboy magazine. During the last four years of his life, he exchanged over 1,500 letters with Brenda. A book containing their correspondence was published in 1986.
Henry Miller died in 1980 at the age of 88.
Quote Of The Day
"A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation... A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold." - Henry Miller
Today's video features a full length documentary on Henry Miller called The Henry Miller Odyssey. Enjoy!