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The Gratuitous Trashing of a Literary Giant PDF E-mail
The Gratuitous Trashing of a Literary Giant

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Henry Miller, Pacific Palisades

In The New York Times of 29 January 2012, Jeanette Winterson published a review of Frederick Turner's Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of "Tropic of Cancer" (Icons of America) . She opens her piece with -

"What happens when the unreliable narrator turns out to be the cultural critic?"

From reading the review, you guess: Not much.

Henry Miller was more than a narrator, he was an Author. Right, with a capital A. 'Schooled by Rabelais' in impertinence, he also gathered his mixed bag of popular philosophical thoughts from countless other writers. His travel books on Greece, e.g. "The Colossus of Maroussi"; on America, "The Air conditioned Nightmare" and "The Oranges of Big Sur", are in themselves outstanding works.

During his lifetime Henry Miller never wanted “Lovely Lesbians,” or “Moloch,” to be published. Nor did he write "Opus Pistorum", which (for whatever reasons, and possibly unscrupulous ones) erroneously credits him as the author. Plus, he never hated women; and he never bore any prejudice towards Jews.
“He had plenty of hatred, toward Jews, foreigners and especially America.”

This is simply not true, Jeanette.

I knew Henry Miller during the last years of his life . Over long dinners in Pacific Palisades we discussed his life, his books, his love of music; we spoke of men and women who were dead or alive; of his many friends, some of whom had left an indelible memory. And let's not forget his mother. She was perhaps more important to him than he realized until the very last moment, when he fully accepted her, as she had been.

Above all he despised bores, and couldn't stand to be in their presence. He could hold conversations with muscle-building lesbians and intellectual homosexuals. But he never really cared about 'the world out there', America per se, with its wars and delusions of grandeur. He disliked people whose mentalities were shaped by a country and what they thought was its culture; and whose sole object was to make money, have children, and retire happily. That he found frightfully boring.

Still, he was American to the core, in all its immigrant waspish sense (yes, that waspishness did come through from time to time); but freed at last of these hang-ups, he stood up for himself, just like Walt Whitman did. He never questioned Whitman's beliefs, and certainly not his sexuality. Those things didn't matter, as long as the individual in question was a good writer.

It is true that Miller found it difficult to understand a woman loving another woman or a man another man. The “most awful humiliation a man might suffer” is probably a genuine statement of his. Yet it needs to be viewed in the context of the age he was brought up in; a waspish environment, where no real choice was offered other than the male/female connection as the only ”normal” relationship. The same goes for calling male homosexuals names. Instead of facing the unknowable, it was easier to reject homosexuality as “unnatural".

Anaïs Nin posed a much greater threat to Henry's psyche than merely the “awful humiliation” he had to suffer from June. June knew how to humiliate him. She knew how to pull the emotional strings. She knew Val, as she called him, too well. She had proposed that he drop everything and start writing. He was not leeching. He was given the opportunity to write. The sex was part of their 'sex-ploration,' a deal openly discussed as an exploration of romance. It was an agreed affair, a menage à trois; but one Henry could simply not face when it actually happened. Further pain came when June slept with Anaïs. Henry cracked. When Anaïs finally stepped in to direct matters, she managed to get rid of June. But let us set the record straight here.

Anaïs was "living off" her husband Hugo, who was working in a Place Vendôme bank. Henry Miller gave her the needed stimulation to shape her writing. Anaïs co-edited his Tropic of Cancer from hundreds of pages down to what you now find in the book. She raised the money from her husband to pay for its publication, along with Lawrence Durrell's Black Book and her own House of Incest. Obelisk was just the “imprint” so the books could reach the shelves, or rather be sold under the counter like illegal merchandise.

At one point Henry Miller expressed a desire to marry Anaïs once he got a divorce from June. Anaïs thought this a bad idea, since it would mean no longer being able to count on Hugo's benevolence.

To say that America is “more mercenary than the meanest whore" is indeed not a nice way to describe the place, but it wasn't meant to be nice. It was that way and still is. “Whore” has acquired various shades of meaning at different times. I suppose that today you could replace it with Wall Street Bankers, for instance.

"Miller’s hatred: the body politic of America will be worked over and revenged through the body of Woman.”

Here you are totally out of context. Or shall we ask if you have still something relevant to talk about? Or how about this 'heroic styling' in NYT:

“Heroic Henry, who has the courage to say [expletive] everything and write a great book.”

Who is afraid of “*fucking* everything?” The New York Times, or you Ms. Winterson? To moot that Miller belongs to that -

“frontiersman mythology, where the fast-talking huckster has a six-shooter mouth”

Is that not what every writer would like to achieve? Was this not said of you? That -
“Miller the renegade wanted his body slaves like any other capitalist — and as cheaply as possible. When he could not pay, Miller the man and Miller the fictional creation worked out how to cheat women with romance. What they could not buy they stole. No connection is made between woman as commodity and the 'slaughterhouse' of capitalism that Miller hates.”

Is this slander or what? Since you didn't know Miller — never met him, never spoke with him (and, so it seems, never really read him!), don't you want to find out why you paint him as so ugly? So indecent? So 'sexist'? As either so immoral or amoral (it's hard to tell whether you know the difference)?

Henry Miller was old-fashioned. His writing was his creation and should be seen as fiction. His novels (e.g., the Tropics, the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, Black Spring) are entertainments and rarely meant to be take seriously. They became his personal fiction, removed from himself. His life, however, was orderly, quiet, occasionally pedantic, respectful; and yes, sometimes he was angry at the world for the direction it was heading in.

He surely did not want to be plunked into this or that arbitrary category. Women remained a mystery to the end of his life. All he ever sought was the one woman to replace his mother. He needed a woman to remind him what it was to be alive. Love was all that mattered. The rest is literature.

“The overturning of obscenity laws in the United States and Britain and the defiant rise of the porn industry are part of the extra­ordinary 1960s zeitgeist, but also part of a new sex war. “Cancer” was published around the same time the pill was approved for use (1960) and Valium hit the market (1963)."

Tropic of Cancer was not the only major literary work appearing coincidentally at the beginning of the sexual revolution.

Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller's seminal work and has potential for students to seriously explore the making of an American writer for generations to come.

“There is beauty as well as hatred in 'Cancer' and it deserves its place on the shelf.”

We certainly hope so; but who knows how long  Tropic of Cancer  will stay there if it's up to people like you? Or if you read the book again, might you read it differently? The myth-making comes not from ignoring an issue, but instead from talking about it too much – 'as if'. As if it were like that. When in fact it isn't.

“The question is: Why do men revel in the degradation of women?”

They don't, my dear Jeanette. But neither do they revel in the distortion of truth for personal publicity; or the trashing of a literary giant, as you have done.

Henry Miller never used a woman abusively. He wasn't into "abuse". In his personal conversations he never employed the language of his books; never used “fucking” in the way that it has become ubiquitous and punctuate anything and everything from corn flakes to sex. And yet it is stricken – censored!!! - from your New York Times review - in a quote.

It is irrational, even foolish, to expect any man, or any woman, to be perfect.

Henry would probably say, "I piss on it all from a considerable height," citing Rabelais. Soit.

© 2012 by Einar Moos

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