Ash Connell on “Henry Miller’s Vision of the American Artist”
Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is the resulting product of an idea for a book Miller conceived while still abroad in Paris. His plan was to travel cross country from New York to California in search of something “genuinely American” (Miller, 12) and write about people, conversations, and places discovered. The finished text offers samplings of the disappointing America that Miller encountered. Scenes such as a couple too tired from a soulless of factory to enjoy a moment on the balcony together or a woman expressing how unimpressed she is by a desert sunset painting the sand and sky hues of purple are mixed in amongst conversations with American artists. Despite stating in his introduction that his intention was to discover the real America, Miller continuously compares American locations and people to Paris in a manner that prevents him from seeing the similarities between the rundown, seedy districts of Paris which he delighted in abroad and similar areas in the States (Brassaï 1975, 25). Miller instead focuses on comparing American cities to more idealized scenes of life in Paris, “a little leisure, a little real conversation, a little decent food [...] a road lined with trees, a street where you can stroll”, blaming their absence combined with the rising consumer culture for the lack of success of the American artist (Brassaï 1978, 3).
Miller does not hold back on expressing his distaste of every major American city he passes through. Detroit was called the capital of a new planet that is killing itself, Saint Louis gets described as a “foul, stinking corpse”, and the neon lit Hollywood is a “bad future [...] out of Fritz Lang” (Miller, 41, 69, 257). The lack of little touches of nature, such as windowsill planters or empty lots filled with the clutter of discarded remnants of consumerism taking it as a sign that the looming factories of the cities have stolen that last bit of connection to the earth that allows man to “make of natural beauty something profound and lasting” (Miller, 68). The “deeper interest in the squalor and ugliness” Miller had while in Paris does not get extended to the filthy cities of America because the American cities do not offer a recess from their squalor in the form of a glimpse of nature (Kennedy 150).
However, despite Miller’s insistence that American culture creates an environment where nothing artistic can take root, he later contradicts himself by saying that every big city in America is filled with “starving or half starved artists” (Miller, 131). Much like the “fat, puffy wattle-faced man of forty-five who has turned asexual” that the American workforce creates later turns into a group of late bloomers who develop their talent and individuality after resigning from the workforce at forty-five, so does the American artist rise out of the wave of destructive industrialization that Miller had declared unable to produce such individuals (Miller, 131, 117). As though an attempt to reconcile this Miller presents a bit of circular logic where in the artist is forced to work on commercial pieces to please upperclass American patrons who know nothing about art because America has yet produce a Van Gogh or Matisse (with the exception of Miller’s few painter friends) because the American painter has neither the natural world from with to draw inspiration nor the opportunity to see the European greats, so he is reduced to doing the commercial work that sells (Miller, 128).
Miller is constantly contorting his developing narrative to fit both the image of America that he formed in the early days of his return and the selective piecing together of his time in Paris. He merges the picturesque side of Paris with the slums and insists that both must be present in the same vicinity in American cities in order for the artist to thrive, forgetting that he once declared that compared to the slums of Paris “the glitter of the grands boulevard seems pale and lifeless” (as cited in Kennedy, 150). Miller wants to paint the contamination of industrialization and its byproduct, consumerism, as a force preventing the growth of artist in America; but by spending time focusing on the artists who are continuing with their craft despite the obstacles, Miller shows that unidealistic, his Paris slums and the American artist’s industrialized cities, are just as much a part of artistic development as the natural beauty of a Parisian stream surrounded by trees or the Grand Canyon.
Brassaï. Henry Miller. New York: Arcade, 1975. Print.
Brassaï. Henry Miller, Happy Rock. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2002. Print.
Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New York: New Directions, 1945. Print.
Kennedy, J. “The Secret Paris of Henry Miller.” Imagining Paris. N.p.: Yale U, 1993. 142-84. Print.
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