After Henry: De-Demonising Miller

by Barry Baldwin

Henry Miller has been ill-served by both defenders and detractors. Muddle begins at the simple bibliographical level. Kingsley Widmer calls his first biography (by Jay Martin, 1978) "co-operative"; Ronald Gottesman dubs it "unauthorised"; Mary Dearborn and Karl Orend (TLS, June 20, 2003) assert Miller tried to quash it.

Martin's was the only one published in Miller's lifetime . Kathryn Winslow's (1984) is purely devotional. Simultaneous ones (1991) by Mary Dearborn and Robert Ferguson tell much the same story in much the same way. Erica Jong's well-intentioned one (1993; TLS, June 25, 1993) scores points against Miller's feminist foes, but here and elsewhere makes unnerving errors. For instance, she rebukes Miller for attempting to coerce fellatio, but Anais' Nin's text (Henry & June, 1989) names the would-be irrumator as her publishing assistant, Lawrence Drake. Likewise, in her valedictory 'Goodbye to Henry-san', 1992), Miller is asked "if he ever screwed a woman with a carrot". this veggie sexual moment (Tropic of Capricorn) is actually credited to his friend Curley ("an inveterate liar").

Through design or ignorance, Jong's bibliography omits Kingsley Widmer's critical Henry Miller (1963; rev. ed. 1990), a study Miller loathed while admitting its potential influence. Generally condescending and hostile, Widmer (who never met Miller: nor did I; Miller almost certainly never saw my letter urging his de-banning in the Australian magazine The Bulletin, May 18, 1963 = item e3232 in Lawrence Shifreen's 1979 Miller bibliography) also gets things wrong. Thus, in a well-honed sneer, "while I have not counted, a student informs me that the protagonist of his 'autobiographical romances' has a distinguished record that includes nine orgasms in one night, and other sterling performances". No references are given. I find no such nonuple feats, impressive but not necessarily incredible. Louis François de Bourbon (at 40) managed twelve in a night with Mme Deschamps; fifteen-year-old Louis XV had seven honeymoon night encounters; Boswell satisfied his Louisa five times on their boudoir debut; Mae West and a lucky 'Ted' went fifteen hours non-stop. Widmer's informant misread or misremembered two Sexus scenes, one involving Miller in a three-way orgy with ex-wife and neighbour, ( "implausible" Widmer, though Miller's real-life friend Bill Dyker slept with twin sisters, having one while the other slept) where the ejaculation count is well below nine, the other involving his pal McGregor's bed-mate who "could come nine times without stopping".

Widmer wastes much time discrediting such scenes. Nobody except the naif Henk van Gelre, editor of the long-defunct Henry Miller Society Newsletter. ever took the authorial sexual odyssey as literal truth. Miller himself often cheerfully admitted that he mixed fiction with fact, finding it hard in later life to separate truth from fantasy.

Miller's sexual behaviour was never tainted by alchoholism or drugs. He did not hit women, much less rape any. He ridicules (Sexus) macho nonsense about cock-size - no penile servitude here. His Blakean "lineaments of gratified desire" included reciprocal cunnilinctus for fellating females. Anal sex seems absent from his repertoire, unless we so interpret the ambiguous "back-scuttlings" - Step forward, ghost of John Sparrow.

As Jong says, Miller hated his reputation as pornographer. Though never ashamed of the Tropics and Rosy Crucifixion, he emphasised that they belonged only to a short period of his long life (1891-1980), and that his readers should move on as he had done. "It's true there's a lot of sex in Sexus (Conversation with Georges Belmont, 1971); concentrated stuff with reference only to a certain period in my life". A letter (in Your Capricorn Friend, 1984) asserts: "Always uppermost in my mind were these fundamental questions - Why are we here? What's the meaning of it all? I know the readers of Cancer may find this difficult to swallow. They are still wallowing in cunt, fuck, etc.".

Miller picked the same bone with his admirer Norman Mailer's Genius and Lust (1976): 'The thing that bothers me is that he won't give me credit in any realm other than sex. Most people, including myself, feel Colossus of Maroussi is my finest writing, but Norman doesn't like it because it isn't sexy. His view is a narrow one, I feel". Overall, Miller dismissed this pamphlet - most people would be glad not to have Mailer's support - as "incomprehensible". One Mailer motive was probably to discredit his arch-enemy Gore Vidal's 1965 review of Sexus - Vidal's mockery of Miller's erotic conquests is a bit rich, given his own sexual braggadocio, as is this popinjay's put-down of Anais Nin - "She gave self-love a bad name".

"Between cops and cultists, it is sometimes difficult to see the who and the what". At Widmer's first edition, Miller was alive with much life and writing in front of him. He was just becoming rich and (in)famous, thanks to the 1960s American and British publication of the banned books and (later) some execrable films: Tropic of Cancer, with Rip Torn(!) as Miller ("almost completely wrong for the role" - Pauline Kael); Andrew McCarthy's (of Dallas and cognate pedigree) Quiet Days in Clichy, and a Danish attempt at the latter with Henry portrayed by a gay actor.

Male homosexuality is not one of Miller's themes, unlike lesbianism which (Nexus and Cancer) was forced upon him by his second wife's dabbling in this with both a New York lodger and Anais Nin in Paris. But, Miller does help demolish the still-popular myth about how homosexuals are 'made' in their 'formative years'. Book of Friends (1976) discloses matter-of-factly that as boys he and a chum used to bugger each other, remarking "we thought nothing of it". Such diversions did not deflect Miller from a lifetime of uproarious heterosexuality.

Apart from these films (he did not live to see Phil Kaufman's Henry & June), Miller was being exalted by old friends and veteran hagiographers such as Karl Shapiro, the Viennese-born novelist Alfred Perlès with whom he passed those 1930s unquiet days in Clichy, and Lawrence Durrell with his hyberbolic "American literature begins and ends with the meaning of what Miller has done".

Miller has had a predictably rough ride with feminists. If Catherine MacKinnon (Only Words, 1993) succeeds, he will be square in her legislative sights. This all began with Kate Millett's tirading Sexual Politics (1970), a torrent of abuse against his alleged macho misogyny, reduction of women to apertures, the usual stuff.

Sex and Henry Miller may seem like getting to the Beatles in a pop music history: what more can there be to say? Well, the 'sex books' occupy a very small percentage of his huge output. Essentially, the two Tropics, Sexus, and Quiet Days in Clichy, plus The World of Sex essay. There is little sex in Nexus, about one-and-a-half pages out of more than six hundred in Plexus ("Myself, I lke this very much" -Miller to Durrell, Art and Outrage, 1961), and a single paragraph in Black Spring, another long-banned early Paris volume.

Quiet Days in Clichy was originally knocked out at one dollar per page in 1940 for a private pornophile, who rejected it as not dirty enough. The published (1956) version was largely a Miller rewrite. It is a light, harmless confection, weirdly described by Jong as "rawer than Cancer". One semantic detail outdoes the copulations for Milleriana. The narrator's flat-mate Joey (= Alfred Perlès) describes a prostitute's poem as "lunatical". To the expostulated "There's no such word in English", Joey retorts " You have to coin a new word. I like that word. Lunatical. I'm going to use it". Googling discloses 104 websites for this epithet, mostly 'bloggers' claiming to have invented it or challenging its existence. In fact, the OED traces it back to 1599. Two relatively modern users are Stevenson (The Master of Ballantrae, ch. 3) - and Miller himself in Nexus (ch. 1, of Dostoievsky's life).

Few would agree with the theologian in Updike's Roger's Version (1987) that the unpleasantly hard-core Opus Pistorum is "so vile that it has redeeming qualities." The Grove Press edition (1983 - significantly posthumous) includes an affidavit filed by Hollywood bookseller Milton Lubovski, asserting that Miller had given him the manuscript in 1942. Widmer accepts this statement (oddly ignored by Dearborn, Ferguson, and Jong) as conclusive. In fact, it proves only that Miller handed the thing over - in this same edition 's Introduction, veteran smut-hound Gerson Legman claimed authorship! Same goes for the suggestive title, doggish Latin for 'Work of the Millers', strangely ignored by biograhers and critics. We might have expected the singular Opus Pistoris: is the plural a cover-up for single authorship, or genuine clue to a porno-conglomerate?According to an on-line Wikipedia site, Miller passed the job on to Caresse Crosby (formerly Mary Phelps Jacob, inventor of the modern brassiere), who duly churned it out. Anais Nin was another smut-scribbler in these circles. With Pauline Réage (The Story of O) also in mind, can feminists explain this womanly willingness to peddle hard-core for men?

Between completion and publication, the manuscript passed piece-meal to the Kinsey Insitute for Sexual Research. Miller's authorship was raised in a letter from his admirer, J. Rives Childs (Collector's Quest, 1968). Miller strongly denied responsibility: "Completely out of my line...I abhor this think poor Kinsey believes this crap to be mine".He has been widely disbelieved. But, since Childs makes no complaint about the content, Miller had no need to disavow it there. Internal evidence is inconclusive. Two titles contain bilingual puns on 'toit'/'twat': Miller's fluent French was well up to that. Yet a passage in Cancer deplores his inability to produce snappy titles. Ferguson observes that, although the Opus Pistorum stories abound with words (e.g. "jism") not in Miller's authentic works, they do contain many recognisable Millerisms: comic surrealism, e.g. cunt as clam, ejaculations like fireworks. Any forger, though, would have taken care to incorporate such items to enhance their genuine feel. Ferguson's ace, "One might think it would take an unusually conscientious forger to come up with the little touch of narrative curiosity about whether or not the midget has a half-size toilet", is easily trumped: it is simply made up from the Capricorn moment when Curley walks in on the midget taking a bath, being already intrigued because "she had a perfectly normal cunt".

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money". But when it comes to his major works, Miller can't be accused of smut for dollars. When Cancer came out (1934), he knew it had no chance of publication in America or Britain. Even in Paris, his publisher Jack Kahane (father of Miller's later patron, Maurice Girodias) was nervous enough to have the books stamped "Ce volume ne doit pas être exposé en vitrine". Likewise with Capricorn (1939) and Sexus (1949), the latter's French version soon banned. No quick bucks in prospect during the long years of Miller's literary apprenticeship. And, when the books were finally licensed and when Miller could easily get anything he wrote published, he produced very little about sex, and (1974) flatly refused an offer to collaborate with Erica Jong on something called A Rap on Sex.

Miller's first efforts at fiction, re-discovered and published long after his death, Crazy Cock and Moloch (TLS, June 25, 1993), although filled with violent emotions, are not juvenile Tropics. Nor, apparently, was a third, Clipped Wings (only fragments remain), which Miller himself (in Capricorn) dubs "the worst book any man has ever written". When Cancer came out, Miller was 43; Sexus was written in his fifties. Kate Millett rightly saw this as "important", though wrongly calling them "a self-pitying threnody" for his youthful paradise.

A dirty old man, then, in fact or fantasy? Nobody has total recall of their life. As Miller grew older, he naturally found it harder to distinguish truth from fiction, especially in the details. He also admiitted to firiends (Durrell, Nin, Perlès) that he deliberately lied on occasion. According to Hungarian photographer Halasz Brassai (Henry Miller, grandeur nature, 1975; cf. TLS, June 20, 2003), the idolatrous Henk van Gelre was crushed to learn his hero's narratives were not unvarnished truth. But here, at any rate, we can agree with Kate Millett: it hardly matters which fuck was fact, which fantasy.

Miller never claimed sex was the only thing between men and women. Nor did he boast of being an irresistible stud ("I've never tried to be a Don Juan"). Richard Kostelanetz' sneer (1992), "Miller to my count is never encounters an impenetrable or frigid woman", is nonsense. Apart from Stasia's rebuff in Nexus, there is his declaration (Book of Friends, 1979), "I shall not pretend that I slept with them all," adding of the Greek woman Melpo, "How wonderful that I never attempted to make love to her. Could she have offered me more by offering her body"?

When concentrating on sex, Miller was only unusual in that unlike most of us he had the literary talent to turn his escapades into art and the courage to write in a way no serious anglophone ever had about it. All young men think about sex most of the time, they try to get as much as possible, not generally very choosy, and exaggerate their conquests to keep up with or ahead of their buddies, all of whom are doing the same. Millett seized on this point, but typically preferred ranting over understanding.

Many Americans went to Paris ostensibly to write or paint, in reality for cheap and easy sex. As Orwell (Inside the Whale, still fundamental onCancer and Black Sprin - the TLS, April 20, 1940, deprecated his approach as "excessively serious", albeit he disliked Capricorn and Colossus of Maroussi, which did not prevent Miller from praising Down and Out in Paris and London in his 1974 Reflections on the Maurizius Case) put it, the phrase on everyone's lips was 'quand je serai lancé', but no one ever was. Women were just like men in this, as bitingly made clear in Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado (1958, significantly republished by the feminist Virago Press, 1993), whose heroine, Sally Jay, comes over as a Henrietta Miller. Apart from incest with her father, Anais Nin would on a good day have sex with Miller, her analyst, her astrologer, and (last and least) her husband. More recent English examples include Moll The Making of Molly Parkin (1993), whose real-life protagonist services the entire Welsh rugby team in one session, and The Love Quest (1991) of Anne Cummings, a self-described sex addict who died at 75 of Aids, having spent (her words) an entire life in pursuit of well-hung men. I have yet to see a feminist denunciation of either woman. Such memoirs endorse what was always Miller's healthy and overrdue point: "Men like to fuck, and so do women (Francie, Capricorn)".

Along with the Paris of Miller/Nin and of Dundy, there was the Paris of Sartre and de Beauvoir. Much of the glitter has been stripped from this precious pair, not least by de Beauvoir's own writings. We also have Mémoires d'une jeune fille derangée (1993) by Bianca Lamblin, a young student of de Beauvoir, who procured her for Sartre's bed. The sex was traumatic, thanks to Sartre's ineptitude, compounded by his overbearing sarcasms. Worse, Lamblin was Jewish, the cause of her sudden brutal abandonment in 1940 for political reasons by her famous mentors whom she convicts of ingrained anti-Semitism.

Millett accuses Miller of racism towards Afro-American women: "He has a certain faltering sympathy for blacks which does not extend itself to black women about whom he makes remarks so outrageously racist that they are difficult to match in serious writing". This is absurd. True, Miller does express a taste for black women, apropos Valeska in Capricorn, a character based on the mulatto Camilla Euphrosnia Fedrant with whom he worked at Western Union, in crude terms: "dark meat is tastier and it costs less". But crudity is not racism, and here as elsewhere Miller's sentiments are not hostile. In Capricorn, he defends Valeska against a racist office superior, himself a Jew. Miller understood that racism is a complex thing, not simply black versus white or Jew against Gentile. Jesse Jackson's celebrated brush with New York Jews was a telling reminder of this.

It's not hard to find 'chinks', 'dagos'. 'niggers', 'wops', and polaks in Miller. Aller Retour New York (1935) is particularly stuffed with such litanies. But this same volume also obtrudes sympathy for American Indians, still a neglected cause. This is the point. It's just as easy to find favourable Miller remarks as not. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) dwells indignantly on the wretched condiitions of Southern blacks. Writing to his last lady friend (Dear Brenda: Love Letters of Henry Miller to Brenda Venus (1986), apropos the impending Ali-Spinks fight, he ocnfides "I sure hope Ali wins. A spectacular guy. A nigger who refused to take the white man's shit".

Miller had more than one coloured girl friend, transgressing the social and racial taboos of 1920s America, a courage conveniently overlooked by Millett, who also fails to mention how he and June in their Brooklyn days got into trouble for placards protesting against police brutality to a negro. His ethnic crudities were often crude jokes tailored to recipients. Miller should here be understood in the way Clive James treated Lisa Jardine's demented attack ('Saxon Violence', Guardian, December 8, 1992) on Philip Larkin's letters: "The zeal of the dunces was something else. Invited to attack the man, they downrated the poet as well".

Likewise, Miller and his alleged anti-Semitism. Later writings (Book of Friends, 1976) speak warmly of Jews, offsetting earlier tirades against them from (mainly) his time in France, which as Jean-Marie Le Pen's popularity confirms, is not the best place to divest yourself of anti-Semitism, especially given his involvement with the likes of Céline (cf. Françoise Brégis, H. V. Miller, L. F. Céline et Les Juifs, 1972). No need here to repeat Miller and Millerians on his Paris years, except to pose a rarely-asked question: would he have exploded into the Tropics, had he stayed in New York, suffering from "eczema of the brain" (Nexus) among Brooklynite "malnutrition of the soul" (Sunday After the War, 1944).

Widmer's indictment of Miller as an autobiographical liar centres on his frequently expressed claim to have been permanently influenced by hearing the notorious anarchist and free-love advocate Emma Goldman speak in San Diego in 1913 and buying a Nietzsche from her comrade Ben Retiman. He brags of discovering that the pair were prevented from speaking and run out of town by vigilantes. In fact, no discovery at all: Goldman provided a full account in her Living My Life (1931). The same thing happened in 1914. Goldman did speak there in 1915, without Reitman. Miller was then apparently back in New York, albeit the Henry Miller Goldman mentions meeting there was not our Henry but the homonymous actor-producer (d. 1926) for whom the Henry Miller Theatre is named. Widmer overlooks the possibility that Miller heard Goldman in 1911. His whereabouts then are hard to pin down. Kenneth Dick (Colossus of One, 1967) says he went to California in this year. The official Henry Miller website chronology is blank for 1911-12. The earliest (Capricorn) mention of California omits Goldman. His recollections, beginning in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), most insistent in The Books in My Life (1952), vary between simply seeing posters for Goldman's talks and actually hearing them. Widmer also ignores a 1939 letter (Ferguson, 25-26) in which Miller can't remember if he heard her in San Diego or San Pedro - Goldman says she lectured throughout California. Overall, then, Miller is entitled to at least a Scottish 'non-proven' verdict.

A character in Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People is Wrong (1959, before the de-banning), proclaims "I read Henry Miller. I saw that I was a rebel". Up to a point, Lord Copper. Miller was sometimes an angry young man, sometimes with cause, especially in Capricorn. Not always at white heat, though. While "loving" his "sacrileges against good taste", Nin disappointedly found him very conventional in many ways. Miller was no great shakes as a thinker. His close friends attest that he worked from huge charts of extracts and quotations. On big and small issues, he was often self-contradictory, not surprising in one who wrote prodigiously at furious tempo in untranquil conditions for nigh on sixty years. He is criticised for writing too much, too repetitively, about himself. Jong contradicts herself on this: "rehashing old experiences" (170); "each time Henry went back to the old material, he discovered new treasures (318)". One may apply Charles Osborne's verdict (reviewing Jonathan Fryer's biography (1993, Sunday Telegraph) on Isherwood: "Self-obsession not only led him to continually recycling the same autobiographical material form book to book, but it also paradoxically prevented him from ever writing a really honest volume of autobiography - for he invariably romanticised himself.But, at his best - in the crypto-autobiographical novels and stories - he is never less than highly engaging. His greatest asset, and one by no means to be despised, is his readability".

For vignettes of people and places, Miller has few equals. For comic gusto sex, none at all. Compare Arthur Miller's description of Tennessee Williams: writing not from head or heart but groin. Phil Kaufman and Fred Ward got him just right in the unheroic, unsentimentalised Miller of Henry and June. Henry Miller was an ordinary man who lived an often extraordinary life and who wrote many extraordnary things. Not a bad epitaph.


Barry Baldwin was born in 1937 and educated in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1962, re-moving to Canada in 1965, where he is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published around 30 short stories in print (magazines and book anthologies), and has a novella, "Not Cricket", imminent in Chapbook form (Rembrandt & Company Press, USA), also in e-zines. He has been a Finalist in the Arthur Ellis Awards (Canada 1999) and the Anthony Awards (Bouchercon, 2000, USA) in the mystery short story category.

After Henry: De-Demonising Miller
© 2010 by Barry Baldwin
All rights reserved.






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