The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, by Arthur Hoyle
A Review by Peter Anastas
(Arcade Publishing, 2014, 416 pp., $27.95)
“We are being stifled and smothered by our creature comforts, by our fear of change, our fear of adventure, but above all by our fear of ideas….But the struggle of the individual to emancipate himself, that is to liberate himself from the prison of his own making—that is for me the supreme subject.” --Henry Miller
Major biographies of two representative American writers, Henry Miller and John Updike, recently appeared within a month of each other. The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, by Arthur Hoyle, was published in March 2014, followed in April by Adam Begley’s Updike. While Begley’s well-publicized life was widely reviewed in the US and UK within a week of its publication, Hoyle’s biography has only received a handful of reviews beyond the usual notices posted by Kirkus and Library Journal. The most significant appeared in TLS, which commended Miller for his “commitment to a rare aesthetic and philosophical vision,” and the Santa Barbara Independent, where reviewer Brian Tanguay described Hoyle’s biography as “the perfect trailhead…for the seeker bold enough to venture beyond the boundaries of convention.” It’s understandable that an eagerly anticipated initial biography of Updike would excite interest; but one would think that the first new approach to the life and work of Henry Miller to have been published in 23 years would rate more than the cursory notices it has so far received.
Though it could be argued that both writers had sex as a central concern and were also said to have been essentially autobiographical in terms of the sources of their work; and while it could equally be said that Updike could not have addressed the question of sexuality as directly and candidly as he did without Miller’s having first smashed the taboos against explicit sexual representation, as Lawrence had previously opened the way for Miller, at bottom no two American writers were as dissimilar. Miller was Whitmanian in the expansiveness of his language, the freedom of his expression, and the experimentalism of the structure of his books, just as Jack Kerouac later was. Attracted to Emma Goldman’s anarchism at an early age, he spent his life outside of accepted social and political systems, his formal education as spotty as his reading was wide. Updike, instead, a self-described small town boy as against Miller’s Brooklyn and Paris-rooted urbanism, favored a highly controlled and intensely literary approach, gained from studying with Harvard professors, who were steeped in the mythological, allegorical and symbolistic imperatives of the New Criticism, their world view—and his by extension— framed by conservative Cold War politics.
Brian Tanguay begins his review of Hoyle’s book by agreeing with its author that Henry Miller is “one of the most neglected American writers — overlooked by the finest universities in the country, very few of which teach Miller, and excluded from the canon of American literature.” He also agrees with Hoyle that that Henry Miller “deserves a place in the pantheon of American writers, and to be taught in our universities.” It is with this in mind, he writes, that “Hoyle sets himself the prodigious task of introducing Miller to a new generation of readers.”
Most of my friends who were reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn in the mid-fifties obtained these banned books from tourists or members of the military, who had smuggled them into the country from France. After which they were passed secretly from hand to hand, often losing their bright red and green paper covers like the discarded pulp novels they were erroneously accused of being. Instead of reading Miller’s ground-breaking novels under the table, I was fortunate to have discovered them in the rare book room of the Bowdoin College Library as part of a collection that contained copies of most of the major avant-garde books of 20th century European art and literature, bequeathed to the College by an alumnus and rare book collector, Robert L. Swasey, who had been Henry Miller’s friend and patron.
The Swazey collection was of particular importance to me because it contained not only Miller’s Tropics, in their original Obelisk Press editions, as published in Paris in 1934 and 1938 by Jack Kahane, but the privately printed Black Spring, The World of Sex and The Colossus of Maroussi, one of Miller’s greatest books and of utmost significance to me as a young writer of Greek-American heritage, planning his first trip to Europe. Exile and expatriation had emerged as significant themes for me from when I’d first started to read about the Lost Generation in Malcolm Cowley’s Exiles Return and John Aldridge’s After the Lost Generation. Thereafter, Miller’s own saga of abandoning New York in 1930, followed by years of penury and artistic struggle in Paris, culminating in the publication of the Tropics, his life-affirming stay in Greece just before the war, and his return to travel in America, as chronicled in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, was an enormous inspiration to me, both as a writer and prospective traveler. Of equal importance to me was the fact that Miller idolized D. H. Lawrence, about whom I was writing my senior thesis, having written a major study of Lawrence’s novels which, except for excerpts, remained unpublished until after his death, in 1980.
I like to think that my first response to Miller’s work wasn’t merely prurient. I was twenty years old in 1958, innocent of most of the sensual experience Miller catalogued in his novels, so I would not be truthful if I said I hadn’t been drawn into their erotic dimensions. Nevertheless, I saw that Miller was no pornographer; nor was what he had achieved formally and linguistically in those ground–breaking novels anything close to the “smut” he had also been labeled as purveying. It was clear to me that Miller was a serious American writer in the vein of Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, whom he had clearly inspired, if not influenced. These were among the writers I most admired, those who spoke in their own voice, who recounted to you, as if in intimate conversation, what they were thinking and feeling about what they had seen and done.
At the time I was an undergraduate there was an enormous struggle underway in both the academic and literary worlds, centering on the importance and value of “open” as against “closed” forms in poetry and prose. The New Criticism, under which we, like Updike, were principally being trained to read, viewed the novel or the poem as closed systems of symbols and myths, which were to be decoded in both literary and religious, especially Christian, terms. There was also a political dimension to this system, as I’ve said, not lost on those of us who experienced the Cold War obsessed times we were living in as equally closed and repressive. The American publication of Miller’s Tropics and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by Grove Press, in the early 1960s, would become a major catalyst of change, moving us further away from the closed society to a more open and permissive one, literature in some cases leading the way. The prose that had helped to precipitate these changes, along with Miller’s, included Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, both of which had clearly been inspired by Miller’s novels, while Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, helped to liberate poetry from the sterile formalism of the New Critics and their practitioners.
Naturally, our teachers excoriated this “New American Writing,” warning us that it would be our moral and writerly outdoing were we to be unduly influenced by its “formlessness,” not to speak of its “decadence.” We, as equally natural rebels, rushed toward Miller, when we could find his books, while Kerouac’s emerging Beat novels like On the Road and The Subterraneans, along with the stories of Michael Rumaker, the novels of Douglas Woolf, and the equally enthralling fiction and drama of the British Angry Young Men, gripped our imaginations in ways that American mainstream fiction, like the then popular novels of James Gould Cozzens, did not, except for books we had discovered on our own like Dos Passos’ USA or Wright Morris’ The Field of Vision, which were decidedly not taught in the classroom.
It is difficult to explain the literary situation I’ve been describing to younger generations of writers and scholars, who have come of age in a practically censorship-free age; indeed, a time in which topics like oral sex are graphically discussed in the national media and pornographic novels like Fifty Shades of Gray are widely read and have sold many more copies than Miller’s Tropics. Nevertheless, this situation, while potentially marginalizing pioneers like Lawrence and Miller, could also offer new readers a greater opportunity to discover these seminal writers in a less clandestine, heated and compromised atmosphere than the one in which they originally emerged. In fact, it would seem to me that there is no better time to encounter Miller as writer in a more global sense—a Miller who not only used his own experience in fictively experimental ways, but also wrote some of the finest essays of his time, touching not only on personal and literary issues, but also describing his lifelong spiritual quest.
It is this Henry Miller, the writer and spiritual seeker, that Hoyle gives us in his gripping and deeply-researched biography, a book which Miller’s own son Tony, who grew up in Big Sur with his parents, calls “the best book ever written about my father.” Having read three previous biographies of Miller by Jay Martin, Robert Ferguson and Mary Dearborn, each of them worthy in its own way, I tend to agree with Tony. Instead of beginning with Miller’s birth and upbringing in Brooklyn, as the other books do, Hoyle jumps ahead to the Paris years, the years in which Miller came into his own as a writer. Though he later, and quite artfully, circles back to Brooklyn, the site of Miller’s troubled relationship with his parents, his decision to view Paris and Big Sur as nodal points in the growth of Miller’s artistry as well as his spirituality, gives the book a more concentrated and therefore more dramatic focus than the earlier studies, which, being chronological, tend to gloss over the more epiphanic and therefore more significant points in Miller’s never unadventurous life.
Miller’s life may be seen as a continual spiritual quest, not for a deity or a form of belief but for a way of relating to creation itself, through the discovery of a way of being in the world “as a vital singing universe, alive in all its parts,” as Miller describes it. Hoyle maps this quest through a sensitive examination of Miller’s reading. Like many autodidacts—Eric Hoffer comes to mind—Miller’s reading was wide, deep and extremely eclectic, running the gamut from Emerson and Thoreau to Louis-Ferdinand Celine, little known when Miller began to read him in the 1930s, but now considered to have been one of the major stylists in French literature. He wrote an entire book about it, The Books in My Life, which is as fascinating to read as Miller’s fiction. To become immersed in Miller’s enthusiastic accounts of how he found a certain book or discovered a particular author is to understand yet another dimension of how Miller came at life. Of the books that most delighted and instructed him, he writes, “They were alive and they spoke to me.” The same could be said of the people in his life, those he met in Brooklyn, Paris, or Athens and has written so animatedly about, or the places like Big Sur, which he spent much of the latter part of his life in and made his own in books like Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.
There is much to commend in this fine biography of one of the most misunderstood and yet most American of our writers. To rectify that lack of understanding and to have as clear an introduction to Henry Miller’s mind and art as Arthur Hoyle has given us, I know of no better place to begin than with this illuminating book.
(This review appeared in Beat Scene, UK, #83, Late Summer 2016)