These two levelheaded biographies of Henry Miller, by Robert Ferguson; Henry Miller: A Life and Mary V. Dearborn’s The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller, should help him assume his rightful, bedbug-infested place on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus. It has never been easy to consider Miller simply as a writer. He never did himself. His first published book, Tropic of Cancer (1934), announced, ”This is not a book…No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty.” Later the literary outlaw cast himself as easygoing sage, dispensing mystical vapors from a mountainside in Big Sur. But a novelist? A maker of mere literature? Miller firmly denied the allegations.
So did most of his enemies and fans. During the nearly 30 years when Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn (1939), and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (1953-60) could be published only in Paris, U.S. postal and customs officials regarded him as just another pornographer. In the ’60s, when his books were finally published here, he was surrounded by deferential commotion, as if he had just received the Nobel Prize for Sex. Playboy interviewed him; young women offered him nude photos of themselves or simply themselves; the fledgling counterculture asked (but didn’t get) his blessing. In the ’70s feminist critics and the sensitivity police dispersed the crowds, flailing him for callousness and unspeakable language, and once again his works were taboo for the pure-minded. By the time he died in 1980 at the age of 88, the tailor’s son from Brooklyn was back where he felt most at home, miles away from respectability.
Both Ferguson and Dearborn avoid canonizing or demonizing Miller. Ferguson is more skeptical and reflective and has the edge in seeing through the mythifications and mystifications of Miller’s books. Having previously written a superb biography of the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, a crucial model for Miller, he is better than Dearborn at sorting through Miller’s influences and idols — Rabelais, Rimbaud, Whitman, Celine, the Surrealists — and distilling some sense from his cloudy, cranky philosophical brew — essence of Nietzsche, tincture of Taoism, and dashes of Freud, Nostradamus, and Mary Baker Eddy. Dearborn, the author of Pocahontas’s Daughters, a study of gender and culture in America, offers a more fluent narrative and a more detailed account of Miller’s family, childhood, and old age.
Both Ferguson and Dearborn neglect their contemporary biographical duty to deliver a series of nasty shocks about their subject, since their subject has already taken care of that himself. The only shock left for them is that Miller made up some of the worst stuff and exaggerated the rest. The reader is staggered to learn that he was basically cautious and compulsively tidy, doing the dishes and giving hygiene lectures when his companions were bent on making major breakthroughs in bohemian squalor. Both biographers stress the decisive role of his second wife, June, an exotically beautiful Jewish woman whom he met at a taxi-dance hall and who was far more willing to live on the edge than he was. For her he left his conventional first wife, Beatrice, and their young daughter. At June’s insistence he quit his first and only steady job (at Western Union) to chip away at his writer’s block. She tortured him by falling for an uninhibited lesbian (who moved in with them). He tortured her by finally settling in Paris in his 40s and falling for writer Anaïs Nin (the subject of last year’s movie Henry & June).
Both biographers recognize that Miller not only had to distance himself from his much-cursed humdrum German-American background, he had to affirm it, to rediscover himself as an ordinary man. As Ferguson points out, it was when he gave up his literary pretensions that he found his true, slovenly voice and produced literature that was appreciated by T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and the dozens of younger writers he influenced. The voice was at its best when it wasn’t too entranced by itself — when it was deflationary and comic. Dearborn is right in saying that Miller was most convincing as a literary clochard (bum), not as a windy sage. Ferguson is right to insist on Miller’s native buffoonery. His work really was a slapstick kick in the pants, a pie in the face of solemn propriety. A