After Henry: De-Mythologising Miller

After Henry: De-Mythologising Miller

Miller has been ill-served by both detractors and defenders. Erica Jong's well-intentioned study makes unnerving errors. She rebukes him for attempting to coerce Anais Nin into fellatio, but Nin's own account accuses her publishing assistant. Jong asked Miller "if he ever screwed a woman with a carrot?" This veggie sexual moment is actually credited (Tropic of Capricorn) to one Curley, "an inveterate liar."

His snidest critic, Kingsley Widmer, sneers at his "distinguished record of nine orgasms in one night and other sterling performances." Miller claims no such nonuple feats, impressive but not 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 bedroom début; Mae West and a lucky 'Ted' went fifteen hours non-stop.

An "implausible" Millerian three-way orgy is paralleled by real-life friend Bill Dyker, who slept with twin sisters, having one while the other slept.

Feminists predictably abuse Miller on the erotic front. But, what about Anais Nin, who on a good day would have sex with Miller, her analyst, her astrologer, and (last and least) her husband? Or Molly Parkin, who serviced the entire Welsh rugby team in one session? Or Anne Cummings, self-described sex addict who (her own words) spent her entire life in pursuit of well-hung men? Or Annabelle Chung, who bedded 251 men in ten hours, "for sociological purposes"?

No feminist denunciations here. These ladies endorse Miller's healthy, overdue point: "Men like to fuck, and so do women" (Francie, Tropic of Capricorn). His sexual behaviour was never tainted by alchoholism or drugs. He did not hit women, much less rape any. He ridicules 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, unless we so interpret the ambiguous 'back-scuttlings' - step forward, ghost of John Sparrow.

Unlike lesbianism, in which his second wife dabbled, male homosexuality is not a Miller theme. But he does help demolish the still-popular myth about how 'gays' are made in their 'formative years'. His Book of Friends disclosed matter-of-factly that he and a chum used to bugger each other, remarking "we thought nothing of it." Such boyhood diversions did not deflect Miller from a lifetime of uproarious heterosexuality.

Miller hated his reputation of pornographer. Though never ashamed of the Tropics or Rosy Crucifixiion, he emphasised they belonged only to a short period of his long (1891-1980) life. He picked this bone with Norman Mailer's hagiographic Genius and Lust, insisting his own favourite writings were Colossus of Maroussi. and the virtually sex-free Plexus.

The nearest Miller provably got to real commercial pornography was Quiet Days in Clichy, originally knocked out for a private client who rejected it as not dirty enough. The published edition is a light, harmless confection, though weirdly described by Jong as "rawer than Cancer."

Few would agree with Updike's theologian (Roger's Version) that the unpleasantly hard-core Opus Pistorum is "so vile that it has redeeming qualities." The Grove Press edition - significantly posthumous - includes an affidavit from Hollywood bookseller Milton Lubovski that Miller gave him the manuscript in 1942.This only proves that Miller handed the thing over. The edition also sports an introductory claim to authorship by veteran smut-hound Gershon Legman. A Wikipedia article asserts Miller passed the job on to Caresse Crosby - 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 Institute for Sexual Rsearch. Miller strongly denied authorship to his admirer J. Rives Childs: "Completely out of my line...I abhor this think poor Kinsey believes this crap to be mine."

HIs denial has been widely disbelieved. But since Childs made no complaint about the content, MIller had no need to disavow it. Internal evidence is inconclusive. Two titles contain bilingual puns on 'toit' and 'twat'. MIller's fluent French was well up to that. Yet a passage in Cancer deplores his inability to devise snappy titles. The thing abounds with words (e.g. 'jism') not in the authentic works, also many recognisable (e.g. the cunt as clam, ejaculations like fireworks) Millerisms. Any forger, though, would have incorporated such items to enhance the genuine feel. Biographer Robert Ferguson's intended ace, "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, already intrigued by her perfectly normal cunt.

At worst, then, a Scottish 'Not Proven' verdict. Erotic feats and porno-denials apart, the other chief 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 Reitman. Widmer brags of discovering from newspaper files that the pair were prevented from speaking there and run out of town by vigilantes. In fact, no discovery at all. Goldman provided a full account in Living My Life. The same thing happened in 1914. Goldman did speak there in 1915, without Reitman. Miller was by then back in New York. But, he could have heard Goldman in 1911. His whereabouts then are hard to pin down. Kenneth Dick says he went to California in this year: the official Henry Miller website chronology is blank for 1911-12. 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 iignores a 1939 letter (cited by Ferguson) in which Miller can't remember if he heard her in San Diego or San Pedro. Goldman says she lectured throughout California. Hence, another Scottish verdict.

"I read Henry Miller. I saw that I was a rebel" (Malcolm Bradbury, Eating People is Wrong, 1959, before the British de-banning. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Miller was sometimes an angry youg 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.

No great shakes as a thinker, either. Close friends attest that he worked from huge wall-charts of extracts and quotations. Often contradictory on big and small issues, not surprisingly for one who wrote prodigiously at furious tempo in untranquil circumstances for nigh on sixty years. Jong criticises him for writing too repetively about himself, getting her own critical knickers in a self-contradictory twist, between "rehashing old experiences" and "discovering new treasures each time he went back to the old material."

We can apply Charles Osbourne's verdict on the very different, especially sexually, Christopher Isherwood: "Slef-obsession not only led him to continually recycling the same autobiographical material from 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. Miller did not live to see Phil Kaufman's film Henry and June about Miller, Nin, and his 'Dark Lady' second wife (Mona-Mara in the novels). Kaufman and Fred Ward as Henry got him just right in their unheroic, unsentimentalised depiction. Henry Miller was an ordinary man who lived an often extraordinary life and who wrote many extraordinary things - not a bad epitaph.

Further Reading: Baldwin, Barry. 'The Colossus of Brooklyn: Henry Miller's Classics,' Classical & Modern Literature 27 (2007), 103-126 Brassai, George. Henry Miller: Grandeur Nature (Paris, 1975: Gallimard) Dearborn, Mary. The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller (New York, 1991: Simon & Schuster) Dick, Kenneth C. Henry Miller: Colossus of One (Holland, 1967: Alberts-Sittard) Ferguson, Robert. Henry Miller: A Life (New York, 1991: Norton) Jong, Erica. The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (New York, 1993: Turtle Bay Books) Martin, Jay. Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller (Santa Barbara, 1991: Capra) Perlès, Alfred. My Friend Henry Miller (New York, 1956: John Day Company) Widmer, Kingsley. Henry Miller (Boston, 1963: Twayne; rev. ed. 1990) Winslow, Kathryn. Henry Miller: Full of Life (Los Angeles, 1986: J. P. Tarcher

-- Barry Baldwin (19/03/2011)

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