Matthew Miller on “Henry Miller: Rebirth in Exile”
Henry Miller came to writing, and to expatriatism, considerably later than most other writers of his generation. When he moved to Paris in 1930 (at the beginning of a far less glorious decade, when authors like Malcolm Cowley had already long since returned home) Miller was nearly forty. He left behind three unpublished books, a dead-end job and his second wife, June, in exchange for a fresh start in the old world, right in the middle of the Great Depression. For his first year in Paris, Miller struggled to make ends meet, with most of his meals coming courtesy of friends and expatriates he had met in the city, writing when he could afford the time. Miller often explored the Parisian streets and back alleys in search of experiences to write about; Paris was “both the ‘book’ he read by day and the work he composed by night” (Kennedy, 146). Miller wrote what he encountered in the city in a fictionalized, autobiographic style. Toward the end of 1931 Miller met Anaïs Nin (and her husband, Hugh Guiler), and began an historic extramarital affair that lasted for years and would ultimately provide for all of his needs in Paris, as well as inspiration for numerous stories, and for the publication of his first (published) novel, Tropic of Cancer (1934). In that novel’s first page, Miller would declare, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive” (Cancer 1). Miller had rediscovered himself far away from his native New York. He was now a true expatriate author in a city that could never truly be his own.
Miller’s experiences as an expatriate were the perfect material to draw inspiration from; all of his works from Tropic of Cancer onward would be a sort of enhanced autobiography. Novels such as Tropic of Capricorn (1938), The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), and The Rosy Crucifixion (Sexus – 1949, Plexus – 1953, and Nexus – 1959) would all follow this distinctive style established in his first success. Tropic of Cancer shows the change that Miller’s expatriate experience had on him from the novel’s very beginning. “A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God” (Cancer 1). Miller’s first months in Paris forced him to become the author he wished to be. He put his experiences in his native New York behind him and dealt with what was then surrounding him, Paris itself. Without Paris and the experience of surviving there Henry Miller would have continued simply playing at being an artist and a writer, fumbling about in obscurity, getting frustrated at his wife and typing up equally frustrated manuscripts with names like Crazy Cock. Miller’s expatriate experience in the Parisian underbelly was perhaps the most important factor in making him the author he ultimately was to become.
DeSalvo, Louise. “Introduction” to Tropic of Cancer. New York: New American Library, 1995, vii-xvii.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. “The Secret Paris of Henry Miller.” Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. New York: New American Library, 1995 .
Ash Connell on “Henry Miller: Escape Toward the Primitive”
When the second World War broke out and forced the last remnants of American expatriates home, Henry Miller took the opportunity to return to New York in order to make an attempt at reconciliation with his native land. In his introduction to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare he wrote of wanting “one last look” at his home country so that he could “leave it with a good taste in [his] mouth” (Miller, 10). Miller wanted this reconciliation so that he could “set out for the unknown with a blessing on [his] lips” (Miller, 10). Unlike the expatriates that Malcolm Cowley writes about, who upon returning home began to reassess their views on American culture and “were ready to find that their own nation had every attribute they had been taught to admire in those of Europe” (Cowley, 96), Miller’s homecoming brought nothing but disappointment. He found America to be lacking “anything comparable to the cathedrals of Europe…enduring monuments created out of faith and love and passion” and the people to be “mental dinosaurs” (Miller, 228).
Much like Cowley’s expatriates, who spend the first part of their journey longing for the farms and wildernesses that were their childhood homes (Cowley, 13), Miller longed for an America where nature can still be seen and felt unhibited by the byproducts and waste of industrialization. Miller found modern America to be a terrifying place where “the divorce between man and nature [is] so complete” (Miller, 20). This distaste for industrial contamination of the earth no doubt motivated Miller’s desire for regression, a return to a more primitive state of being. In a conversation with one of his Parisian friends Miller expounds upon this, stating how he wished he could turn back thousands of years of “history, gods, religions, books, ‘great men’”, wishing to turn the world so far back “that we start to think, to feel, to see the universe in a way that is uncultivated, primitive” (Brassaï, 38). A similar desire is also expressed specifically towards America in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, as Miller wrote about how he wishes that the industrialized complexes would collapse, the forest retake the ground, and the Native Americans, who “have never lost their touch with the earth” supersede modern Americans (Miller, 229). This drive, which Cowley calls “the escape toward the primitive” (Cowley, 236), combined with the feeling of becoming and “an exile, an outlaw in your own country” for “deviat[ing] from the crowd” turn Miller’s thoughts to the American Southwest, an area “still wild and almost unexplored” (Brassaï, 75, 164).
Miller had been looking towards the Southwest even while in Paris, where he first planned out the cross country trip he would take when he returned to America. In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare he writes about the thrill he had when writing “such words as Mobile, Suwanee River, Navajos, Painted Desert” (Miller, 10). While the previous expatriates’ “escape toward the primitive” focused itself toward African and African American Culture (Cowley, 236), Miller’s primitive directed itself toward the Native Americans He felt that the Native Americans understood and respected the vast country in a poetic way that modern Americans could not. Having not found any manmade beauty in America because “no one has looked intensely or lovingly enough” (Brassaï, 75) at the vast landscape of America, Miller turned his thoughts to the untarnished Southwest, wishing as he did so that he had Native American guide to accompany and provide spiritual guidance on the journey.
As he traveled through that “most mysterious region of the country…the enormous rectangular area found within the four states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico” (Miller 19), Miller found himself inspired and awestruck by such natural creations of art as the Grand Canyon and purple desert sunsets. Scenes such as a comic strip sitting on a cliff’s ledge reinforced for Miller just how finite the industrialized culture of America was, giving hope to his dream of nature taking back ravished lands and the primitive Indian, having never lost his connection to the land, once again being the master of America (Miller, 220-22, 239).
Miller’s cross country trip ended when a friend left him in Big Sur, California. Here, in a more isolated area of California Miller found the untarnished nature, and people living in a more primitive state, working off the land and off the grid, that he found lacking back east (Brassaï, 22). In an interview for The Paris Review, Miller says that he found “isolation” in Big Sur which served him well enough in place of “tolerance” for the artist and expatriate that he felt while in Paris (Paris Review, No. 28). Though his initial plan was to return to Europe after the war, Miller “fell in love with Big Sur” (Paris Review, No. 28) and soon he no longer felt a desire to return to a Paris now broken up because of the war. Miller had found his primitive in the Southwest.
Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New York: New Directions, 1945. Print.
Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1976. Print.
Brassaï. Henry Miller. New York: Arcade, 1975. Print.
Brassaï. Henry Miller, Happy Rock. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2002. Print.
Wickes, George. “Henry Miller, The Art of Fiction.” The Paris Review 28 (1962): n. pag. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
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