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|Henry (Valentine) Miller (1891-1980)|
American writer whose autobiographical novels had a liberating influence on mid-20th century literature. Because of the frank portrayals of sexuality, Miller's major novels have been banned in several countries. In the 1960s Miller became one of the most widely read US authors. In his autobiographical works Miller created a myth out of his own life, about a free-spirited, penniless American writer who has a number of affairs and spends his time between New York and Paris.
"The bulk of my readers, I have often observed, fall into two distinct groups: in the one group those who claim to be repelled or disgusted by the liberal dosage of sex, and in the other those who are delighted to find that this element form such a large ingredient." (from The World of Sex, 1965)
Henry Valentine Miller was born in New York, N.Y, the first child of German-American working-class parents. Miller had also a younger sister, Lauretta Anna, who was mentally handicapped and whom he often had to defend from the other kids who would make fun of her. Miller's father, Heinrich Miller, was a tailor. Louise (Nieting) Miller, his mother, never showed much affection toward her son – she used to hit her children, also Miller's sister.
At school Miller was a very good pupil. He attended the college of the City of New York, but left after two months. In Stand Still like the Hummingbird (1962) the author explained that it was Spenser's Faerie Queene which decided the issue for him. "To think that this huge epic is still considered indispensable reading in any college curriculum! Only the other day I dipped into it again, to reassure myself that I had not made a grave error of judgment. Let me confess that today it seems even more insane to me than when I was a lad of eighteen. I am talking, be it understood, of "the poets' poet," as the English call him. What a poor second to Pindar!" Miller had been a voluminous reader from his childhood. At that time his favorites were Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Elie Faure, whose study, History of Art, had been translated into English by one of his father's customers.
At the age of seventeen, Miller visited for the first time a brothel, contracting gonorrhea. He worked briefly as a clerk for the Atlas Portland Cement Company, and gave in the evenings piano lessons, and took then odd jobs. In 1909 he started an affair with Pauline Chouteau, who was 37-years old; she was "the widow" of his book My Life and Times (1972). Unable to settle down, he travelled throughout South West USA and Alaska with money, which was intended to finance him through Cornell. Upon returning back to New York, he went to work at the family tailor's shop, but had difficulties with his father whose drinking had increased. In 1917 Miller married Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, a amateur pianist, and became a father. He had also a brief affair with his mother-in-law.
From 1920 to 1924 Miller was employed by the Western Union Telegraph Company. After leving his family, he lived a with June Mansfield Smith, a Broadway dancer, who encouraged Miller in his writing aspirations. The relationship inspired Miller's early novels Moloch , a rant against Jews, and Crazy Cock (published posthumously in 1991). Later Miller returned to this period in the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion.
Miller did not seriously begin to write until he was 40, although he had published essays and short stories in a magazine in the late 1910s. Clipped Wings, completed in 1922, was rejected by the publishing company Macmillan. His wife June earned extra income as a waiter and occasionally sold her body to support them both. Her restless life style, which first had fascinated Miller, made him miserable.
Changing the direction of his life, Miller moved in 1930 to France, Paris. Originally his intention was to go to Spain, but he never got there until many years later. Miller rented in February a fifth-floor garret in the tiny Hôtel Napoléon Bonaparte at number 61 on rue Bonaparte. The rent, less than $20 per month, turned out to be too much for him. In the autumn he resided with June in Hôtel des Ecoles on rue Delambre for a period. By December he was "rescued from starving" by Richard Galen Osborn, and spent the winter of 1930-31 at his studio, which looked out upon the Eiffel Tower. He then moved to the Villa Seurat to Michael Fraenkel's residencein the 14th arrondissement of Paris. Fraenkel, a Russian bookseller, was featured as the young writer Boris in Tropic of Cancer (1934).
Miller soon became a familiar sight with his olive-green overcoat, wide-brimmed grey felt hat, and protruding bottom lip. He was chronically penniless, but Alfred Perlés, an Austrian writer, paid his rent and his cafe bills, and June sent money. Also Anaïs Nin, who entered his life in 1931, supported him. Like Nin, he was a patient of the German psychiatrist Otto Rank, but only briefly. Besides having no money to spent on a lengthy and expensive therapy, Miller was jealous of her affair with him, and he did not have a high opinion of Rank, one of Freud's followers: "This seeking for meaning in everything. So Germanic! This urge to make everything profound. What nonsense! (Henry Miller on Writing, selected by Thimas H. Moore, 1964, p. 14) Living as a down-and-out was a choice that Miller made deliberately and had no regrets about it. In the fall of his second year in Paris he wrote: "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive." Miller's early books were published almost exclusively by the Obelisk Press, founded by Jack Kahane, who published erotic novels under the pseudonyms of Cecil Barr and Basil Carr. After living two years at Clichy, Miller returned to the Villa Seurat.
With his friend Gilberte Brassaï, born Gyula Halász, who gained fame as a photographer, Miller shared love of the city at night. "I have found my counterpart in dear Halász," he said to his literary agent, Frank Dobo, "a "wanderer" like me, who sets out on an exploration with no other aim but continual investigation." Miller also wrote an article on Brassaï, 'The Eye of Paris', stating: "Perhaps the difference which I observe between the work of Brassaï and that of other photographers lies in this – that Brassaï seems overwhelmed by the fullness of life."
During this time Miller came under the influence of surrealism, Céline, and the literary circle, which included Lawrence Durrell and Anaïs Nin. He created sensation with his classic first works, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn (1936), which offered a vivid picture of bohemian life in Paris and New York. Published in France by Girodias's Obelisk Press, they sold very slowly at first, but after being discovered by American and British GI's and civilians in liberated Paris, Miller began to be known to a wider public than the literary élite. However, mostly due to their sexual explicitness, the books were banned for nearly three decades in the U.S., before decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their literary value. An instant bestseller, Tropic of Cancer made Miller a prophet of sexual freedom.
When the English writer George Orwell travelled to Spain to report on the Civil War, he stopped in Paris and met Miller, who told him that he was a pacifist. Miller's major works from this period include Black Spring (1936), based on his childhood's experiences in Brooklyn, and The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), inspired by his visit to Greece in 1939. Miller went there at the invitatiion of Lawrence Durrell, who had a home on the island of Corfu. The triangular relationship between Miller, June and Nin formed the basis for several of Nin's journals and the film Henry and June (1990).
With the outbreak of World War II, Miller returned to the USA, as poor as when he left, and feeling that he had failed as a writer. At John Steinbeck's birthday in Monterrey he made love to one of the guests on the lawn. In 1942 he moved to California and lived from 1947 in Big Sur on the coast. "It is my belief that the immature artist seldom thrives in idyllic surroundings," Miller said in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957). "If an art colony is established here it will go the way all the others. Artists never thrive in colonies. Ants do. What the budding artists needs is the privilege of wrestling with his problems in solitude – and now and then a piece of red meat." In 1944 Miller married Janina Martha Lepska, a young philosophy student, who was over 30 years his junior. Their marriage ended after seven years. "I live all alone like a monk, a celibate, an exile," Miller confessed to his old friend Brassaï. (Brassaï's archives contain 168 letters from Miller.) However, Miller found soon a new companion, Eve McClure, an artist, whom he married in 1953.
In 1957 Miller was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He wrote prolifically, revisited Europe numerous times and painted water colors. Miller had began to paint in the 1920s and continued to produce watercolors until the final days of his life. Grove Press published Tropic of Cancer in 1961 and the book gained a huge popularity. Miller was not enthusiastic about his imago, when his readers hailed him as the grand old man of sex. At that time he did not see himself as an "outlaw writer" and in interviews he tried to direct the discussion from sex to other subjects, without much success.
In the early 1960s Miller had affair with Renate Gerhardt, a German translator. When she founded a publishing company, Miller helped her financially. Most of his life Miller had lived without regular income, but when his books started sell, he bought a house on Ocampo Drive 444 in the Pacific Palisades, which looked like it belonged to a movie star. He also had to hire accountants and lawyers to plan taxes. In 1969 the feminist writer Kate Millet attacked Miller in his book Sexual Politics, and two years later Norman Mailer defended him in The Prisoner of Sex. Miller died in Pacific Palisades on June 7, 1980. He was married five times. In 1967 he married a young Japanese cabaret singer, Hiroko "Hoki" Tokuda, who refused to have sex with the old writer. They divorced in 1977. She later ran a Tokyo night-club called 'Tropic of Cancer'.
"Henry was so enthralled by women that he sought to demystify their mysterious parts through the violent verbal magic of his books. The violence is rooted in a sense of self-abnegation and humiliation before them. He is, as the Freudians would say, counterphobic.'' (Erica Jong in The Devil at Large, 1993)
Miller's later books include The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), a critical view of the United States, Quiet Days in Clichy (1956), depicting his life as a penniless writer in Paris, and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (1965), which traced the crucial years of the narrator-hero in the United States during which he struggles to became a writer. "I'm a desperado of love, a scalper, a slayer. I'm insatiable," Miller wrote in the first part, Sexus. "I eat hair, dirty wax, dry blood clots, anything and everything you call yours. Show me your father, with his kites, his race horses, his free passes for the opera: I will eat them all, swallow them alive." A study of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose rebelliousness attracted Miller, came out in 1951.
Along with D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover and William Burroughs's The Naked Lunch, Miller's works helped to push back the boundaries of censorship in the 1950s He also influenced the Beat Movement writers. Miller's last love was Brenda Venus, an actress; his letters to her were published in 1986. Also various volumes of Miller's correspondence with Lawrence Durrell, Anais Nin and Wallace Fowlie have been published.
For further reading: Happy Rock, ed. by B. Porter (1945); Art and Outrage by L. Durrell and A. Perlès (1959); Henry Miller by A.K. Baxter (1961); Henry Miller and the Critics, ed. by G. Wickers (1963); Henry Miller by K. Widmer (1963); Henry Miller by G. Wickers (1966); Henry Miller: Colossus of One by K.C. Dick (1967); The Mind and Art of Henry Miller by W.A. Gordon (1967); The Literature of Silence by I. Hassan (1968); Form and Image in the Fiction of Henry Miller by J.A. Nelson (1970); Henry Miller grandeur nature by Brassaï (1975); Genius and Lust by Norman Mailer (1976); Orpheus in Brooklyn by B. Mathieu (1976); Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller by J. Martin (1978); Henry Miller rocher heureux by Brassaï (1978); Henry Miller Bibliography with Discography by Michael Hargraves (1980); Henry Miller - A Life by Robert Ferguson (1991); The Happiest Man Alive - a Biography of Henry Miller by Mary V. Dearborn (1991); The Devil at Large by Erica Jong (1993); Conversations With Henry Miller, ed. by Frank L. Kersnowski, Alice Hughes (1994); Henry Miller and the Making of "Tropic of Cancer" by Frederick Turner (2012); Henry Miller: New Perspectives, edited by James M. Decker, Indrek Männiste (2015); On Henry Miller: or, How to Be an Anarchist by John Burnside (2018) - Film: Henry and June (1990), directed by Philip Kaufman, starring Fred Ward (as Henry Miller), Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros.