Thursday, October 13, 2011


Henry Miller exploded existing literary forms by combining autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism into an expressive fiction that was based on his own experiences.

His works were controversial for the unashamed and detailed depictions of sex, and his work was banned in the United States and other countries for being obscene until 1961.

Miller grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but spent the 1930s in Paris. He was employed by the Chicago Tribune (Paris edition) as a proofreader. He was highly creative in this period, writing Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). During this period Miller met Anais NIn and her husband Hugh Guiler and they supported him during this period. Miller became lovers with Nin, and she financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer with money from Otto Rank. Henry and June was diary-like novel by Nin that documented their relationship and was made into a film in the 1990s.

Tropic of Cancer is set in Paris and centers around Miller's life as a struggling writer. Some of the chapters follow a narrative and there are references to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces. Other chapters are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections, and the book being in the first person, does not have a linear organization, but fluctuates between the past and the present. The central character who pulls us through the book suffers from hunger, homelessness, loneliness, and despair, and can be abhorrent at times, yet ecstatic with life at others. There are explicit passages of his sexual encounters, but overall the book acts as an immersive meditation on the human condition.

Samuel Beckett hailed Tropic of Cancer as a momentous event in the history of modern writing. Norman Mailer felt it was one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Others hated it, including Edmund Wilson who said it was the lowest book of any literary merit he could remember reading, and found it disgusting and tiresome.

After being declared not to be obscene, the book was finally published in 1961 by Grove Press. One judge wrote that "Tropic of Cancer is not a book, but a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity."

Black Spring is a collection of shorter pieces and displays Miller's dazzling use of language and his incredible build-up of detail while chronicling both life in Paris and flashing back to his days in Brooklyn.

Tropic of Capricorn is an extension of Tropic of Cancer, but actually goes back to 1920s New York where the narrator works for telegraph company as Miller did in real life. It is told as a spiritual awakening and centers around Miller's struggle with his wife June Miller, and the process of finding his voice as a writer.

In 1939, the writer Lawrence Durrell invited Miller to the Greek island of Corfu where he was living. Miller wrote about the experience in The Colossus of Maroussi, an impressionistic travelogue that was published in 1941.

In 1940, Miller returned to the US, and settled in Big Sur, California and continued to write works that challenged contemporary American cultural values and moral attitudes. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) documented Miller's travels through the US and he was critical of the consumerist boom in America.

The first part of The Rosy Crucifixion titled Sexus was published in 1949 and detailed Miller's divorce from his first wife and covers the period up until the early part of his marriage to his second wife, June Miller. Set in New York it includes many portraits of friends and lovers and provides a view into Miller's ambition to be a writer. The book uses detailed sex scenes as a catalyst for philisophical discussions on self, love, marriage, and happiness.

The second book of The Rosy Crucifixion was called Plexus and came out in 1953 and documents more of the period of his marriage to June Miller who is called Mona in the novel. In the book Miller also writes about many of his strange and symbolic dreams.

Nexus was the third and final book of the trilogy and was published in 1960. It documents Miller's troubles with his second wife Mona (June Miller) and her lover Anastasia (Jean Kronski) and the period before his departure for Paris.

Other notable works include Quiet Days In Clichy which dates from the same period as Tropic of Cancer but wasn't published until 1956. It is more of a tender and nostalgic work and is a celebration of love, art, and the Bohemian life of a young obscure writer living in Paris when life was slower and simpler.

Under The Roofs of Paris wasn't published until much later as well, but was written in 1941 when MIller was commissioned by a LA bookseller to write an erotic novel for a dollar a page. Miller is direct, honest, and self-mocking and lives life as an odyssey in search of the perfect job, the perfect woman, and the perfect experience.

Crazy Cock was also published much later but was actually written before Tropic of Cancer and tells the story of Miller's rage over his second wife's lesbian lover. He wrote about this period later in Nexus. There are many passages of verbal power, but mostly the book is interesting as an early example of Miller's evolution as a writer. It is also written in the third-person before Miller decided the first-person was his natural voice.

Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch was published in 1957 and is a portrait of one of the most colorful places in the US. Miller writes with a brimming energy and the book is quite funny and includes a cast or extradordinary people and interesting characters.

The Time of the Assassins (1962) was a chronicle of Miller's obsession and admiration for the poet Arthur Rimbaud and provides great insight into the two great writers of subversive, apocalyptic literature.

Henry Miller lived until the age of 88, dying in 1989. Miller did receive criticism for the racism and misogeny that was depicted in his early works. He could be cynical and railed against phoniness. In his later work he wrote in a calmer voice, almost like a zen master. Henry Miller changed the face of literature with his autobiographical works and his honest and poetic prose.

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