Once upon a time, the strewn ashes formed the skeletal infrastructure of Henry Valentine Miller, who called himself “the happiest man alive.” Raw and robust in physique, he was tall, slender and gloriously ugly of face in an old-fashioned way. Which means photographers sought him out, as the resulting photos exposed a most decorative piece of work – a delightful, irregular clot of ebullient life.
Born in Manhattan, New York, Miller grew up in Brooklyn. For a short time he attended City College of New York, but dropped out because he found formal academics suffocating. Miller wanted to write, eat, drink, and fornicate. To live life like most people would, if they could only shed the itchy skin of sanctimony.
Miller moved to Paris in 1930, where he lived like a street person, sleeping on the floors of friends’ apartments, begging for food, scavenging and, of course, writing. The literary fruit of this lifestyle was Tropic of Cancer, a ribald, autobiographical novel that reads like an animated, graphic essay. Because of its overt sex scenes, honest language, and innovative style, no publisher in the United States would touch the book.
Published in Paris by Anais Nin, copies of Tropic of Cancer were smuggled into the United States. And Miller became the brilliant bad-boy of underground literature. George Orwell called Miller “amoral, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” Orwell was right, except Miller did not accept evil. Instead he embraced life according to human appetites.
Miller moved back to America in 1940 and took up residence in Big Sur, California, painting, writing and living off the European royalties of his books. Then Grove Press took a deep breath, girded up its loins and published Tropic of Cancer in the United States. Instantly banned as lewd, obscene and lascivious, i.e., as pornography, lawsuits ensued, and the case finally landed on the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court decided Tropic of Cancer was literature, not pornography.
Tropic of Cancer became an immediate, sensational bestseller. And Miller’s other books, because of the magnetic effect of success and sex, got caught in the vortex and sold very well. Miller made a lot of money.
While all the legal maneuverings were taking place, Miller, savaged by the media, who called him “the king of smut,” kept writing and living life to its full. Years later, when his talent betrayed him because of old age, vast amounts of alcohol and disinterest, Miller came to resent his designation as the king of smut. But there was little he could do about it.
A literary genius, Miller was also very sexual, chasing after younger women his entire life. Most of his romances failed because Miller needed to feel loved, and he felt loved when he was having sex. Modern psychotherapists would diagnose Miller as addicted to sex, but they see only symptoms, which are then identified as the problem. Henry Miller was not addicted to sex. He was addicted to love, like most of the human race. He simply didn’t know where to find it, how to find it, or how to recognize it when he bumped into it. Like a puppy that wants to play, but doesn’t know how, Henry wanted to love and be loved. That he failed is not unusual – most of us do. Cause for celebration is this: he tried!
Married five times, and almost a sixth, Miller had numerous romantic liaisons during his life, many with super-beautiful women. Anais Nin was one such goddess with whom Miller dallied.
Miller’s writing style was individual and distinctive: flippantly obstinate stream-of-consciousness, hectoring and reckless, reflecting impropriety and bad faith, and shimmering in sensuous colors. Miller despised what he called “literature,” as a kind of disease of the mind. Instead of literature, he wrote his vision, that which he discerned and intuited. The result was a kind of controlled babbling, which, in the end, while pleasant and provocative, turned out to be the highest type of literature. Despite his protestations, Miller composed intense, erudite prose by simply tossing it off, like a series of afterthoughts.
Henry Miller the human being is almost more interesting than his writings. In a sense, then, for Miller life was a pretext for writing, and writing was a pretext for living life. The two were inseparable. And perhaps that’s the way it should be. I know this for sure: like biblical King David, he had a great capacity for life. Which, of course, translates into a great capacity for imperfection, too. When he failed in life, Miller had his writing to return to, and when writing proved too much, he came back enthusiastically to women, painting, booze and ping-pong.
He was the happiest man alive, for one simple reason: he realized he was a man, not a demi-god attempting to achieve perfection.
Like Bill the poodle in Orlando the Marmalade Cat, Miller applied for the job of pet. He wanted to be the pet of Life. And he brought along his own pet – his writing. ‘
In Orlando, Bill announced, “We wish to apply for the job,” he said, speaking for the cinnamon-coloured cat as well. “Sometimes we’re honest and sometimes we’re clean, but we’re always loving.”’
Like Bill, Miller was “very sporty and all that.” There was never a dull moment while Miller was around, because just as Bill liked “chasing cats,” so Henry Miller liked chasing life and love. And just like Bill, who never really caught a rabbit, Miller never really caught love, but he did enjoy the attempt. Bill looked rather foolish. “It’s a funny thing,” he grinned, “but do you know I’ve never yet been able to catch a rabbit.”
“He grinned” is the vital phrase. It tells us much about Bill and about Miller. They were both happy even while trying and failing. Attitude is everything: the difference between a miserable existence on the one hand, or being able, like Grace, to “begin enjoying this strange way of traveling.” ”I feel so happy,” she purred. “My heart is like a harp with the wind blowing tunes upon it.”
Henry Miller had a heart like a harp.