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Henry Miller:
The Iconoclast as Everyman’s Friend

I (1960)

It begins to looks as if the two great rhapsodic and picaresque narratives of modern literature, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, are going to have to wait a while longer before they can be bought and sold and read in America legally. This is too bad, for they are very great books indeed. In the meantime, the great public will have to do with excerpts and anthologies of Miller’s writing. In the last few years New American Library has published two good but rather short collections, mostly narrative. Here is a big fat collection, the sections headed Places, Stories, Literary Essays, Portraits and a section of aphorisms called The Man Himself.

If you want an introduction to all of Henry Miller, this is it. He is far more than a teller of bawdy tales. He has a flamboyant, prejudiced and sentimental reaction to places that makes him an amusing, even sometimes exciting travel writer — thoroughly misleading and thoroughly entertaining.

His Colossus of Maroussi, in print as a New Directions paperback, is one of the best books on modern Greece ever written. There is a fine excerpt from it here, as well as wonderful evocations of pre-World War Brooklyn, the old-time ghettos of New York, Paris in Cette Belle Époque, the late Twenties and early Thirties, Big Sur, and an amusing and typically Parisian diatribe against Dijon — a real tornado of anti-provincialism.

Dijon is as a matter of fact one of the finer small cities of France and a paradise for the epicure as well as the center of a region of fine architecture. That is the point. Henry Miller sees places, people, books, entirely in terms of his own mythologies and enthusiasms. We don’t read him for the real Dijon, but for his own hilarious reactions. The same with books. He writes of Rimbaud or Cendrars with no caution, sense, or “critical ability.” That’s fine. We have plenty of people who can do that. Miller writes about a book, not just as though he was the only man who ever read it — but as though he was the only man who had ever read — as though he had discovered, all for himself, the art of writing and reading — as though he were a Martian a million years hence who had found the poems of Rimbaud and Cendrars on the sands of a deserted and blasted Earth. This may not be the way to teach a seminar in Modern French Literature, but it is sure refreshing.

Miller comes at you with his responses to the living utterances of other writers in his heart and in his hands, like a cave man with fistfuls of dollops of mammoth meat. The same goes for the stories. In comparison with the highly stylized compressed narrative we, raised on Hemingway and Simenon, have come to expect, they may seem a trifle long-winded at first — but they are far from dull. They are not really stories at all — fiction, by a writer. Actually, many of them are “made up,” his books are far less autobiographical than he would have you believe — but they never sound that way — they have the overpowering verisimilitude of anecdotes from real life overheard in a noisy bar. They all sound like those terrible, inarticulate, untellable tales that lie behind the bloodshot eyes of the elderly female barfly who leans over you and says, “You a writer, huh. Listen, feller, I’ve lived a life that would make a book no author could write.”

Somehow, Miller has learned how to tell such tales — or at least give a very convincing imitation. This is the secret of High Style. Very few writers have it. Almost none have it the second time around. Miller may not be as great a writer as Dostoevski — but reading most any narrative by him is like reading The Brothers Karamazov for the first time — you completely forget you are reading — it all seems to be really happening, and to you, directly. When you’re through, like a child at its first play, you have to be reassured that it was just a story.

Henry Miller, and even more his disciples, are under the impression he is a Thinker. There are a lot of his ideas, opinions, prejudices and attitudes in this collection — too many probably for some.

Miller came to prominence in America in a period of reaction and conformity. The secret of understanding Henry as Thinker is to forget that he is supposed to be deep, or revolutionary, or outrageous — intellectually he is just a good old-fashioned American — a guy from 1900 Brooklyn. He looks like a Watkins Medicine Man driving a Model T from farmhouse to farmhouse, and his rambunctious and windy ideas are the precious survival of just such a pure type into our modern world of Togetherness. He is popular because, behind the mask, a lot of drummers still think the same way — believe it or not.


II (1961)

I have been collecting clips of the response of the newspaper book-reviewers around the country to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. It has not been good. Few have minded the bad words, some have even reviewed the book without mentioning their existence. Most of them have had deeper moral objections. They object to Miller’s windy generalizations and empty profundities. A couple quote Nelson Algren’s remark that the big trouble with Miller is he thinks he thinks. Several point out that the sexual encounters bear unmistakable signs of fantasy rather than empiric knowledge. Almost everybody says that continuous ranting accusation of collapse and bankruptcy leveled against Western civilization is totally misconceived; the West may be collapsing but Miller’s accusations are not correct diagnosis, and the rant is stereotyped. The most fundamental objection occurs again and again — there are no people in the book. It is written without sympathy or insight, Miller doesn’t like people, in fact he doesn’t know they are out there. He is anti-human and anti-humane. What all this adds up to is the judgment that Miller is a barbarian within the gates, an uncultured and unculturable man, one of Toynbee’s Internal Proletariat.

I agree. The newspapers are perfectly right. Back in the days when he was being discovered Cyril Connolly did not compare him to John Locke or Walter Bagehot. T.S. Eliot did not liken him to Matthew Arnold or Henry Adams. This is the voice of the outcast who can never get in. He doesn’t know where in is or what it is. His descriptions of the motives and mores of the Paris or New York around him are irrelevant fantasies, as unreal as the notions of a millionairess or a neo-beat intellectual on the prowl in Harlem. The indictment of a criminal is based on law, the codification of social relations. Miller’s indictment of society is not based on social relations at all but on his inability to have them. This is the moral Bowery speaking. Over the years since the Tropics Miller has accumulated a vast mound of “speculative” writing under his byline. It is, all of it, not just wrongheaded and wrong in facts and taste — it is excluded from the universe of discourse, the travel diary of a philosopher who always put up in the Mills Hotels.

Yet Miller is not Little Joe Gould or even Restif de la Bretonne. He is not a naïf. True, he thinks he is, and he is always writing letters to critics telling them that the Tropics are not works of art but “just the way it happened.” Rereading Cancer at this late date it is apparent that it is not a “récit,” it is unquestionably a construct. The comparison is with The Satyricon, not with Monsieur Nicholas.

The Satyricon, even in the fragments we have, is a great comic novel. Restif’s book is not comic at all. It is funny often enough, but when it is it is pitiful, because we laugh at Restif himself. We never laugh at Miller. We share with him his vulgar, delinquent Brooklyn Boy horse laugh and razzberry. True, the greatest comedy is the most humane form of letters. Miller is not Rabelais or even Swift. The characters in the Tropics rattle against each other like pebbles in a couple of maracas. But this is true of The Satyricon too. At least Miller knows he is being funny.

Twenty-eight years have gone by since Cancer was first published. Since then its form has become the most fashionable in modern literature. We are being overwhelmed in a pandemic of récits — especially French ones. The Underground Man has become literary Top Dog. An admitted ex-male prostitute and studbuster has reached the windiest pinnacle of international réclame. The corridors of American publishers are crowded with Columbia Creative Writing Majors disguised as switch-blade artists, dope fiends and violators of the Doyle Act.

There is only one trouble with all this stuff. It is soaked in unfathomable solemnity and pompous rhetoric. In all Genêt or Kerouac there is nothing to compare with Miller’s Hindu and the bidet, or the Imaginary Rich Girl. I’m sorry. I just don’t believe Henry when he expands and augments Count Keyserling, or recommends a Dream Book, or worries at breakfast over the astrology column in the morning paper. He’s having us all on — maybe himself included — but behind the deep thoughts from Bughouse Square, there is always, however faint, the steady rumble of low-down mockery.

I wish Miller’s self-educated hoboes were not more driven and harried than any college professor or machine tender. I wish once in a while somebody would come alive as simply human. I wish somebody would love somebody else, somewhere in all Miller’s millions of words, just once, just a little, or at least let on that they felt somebody else was there. They never do. That is the basis of the indictment and the basis of the comedy. Do they really in Gulliver or Rabelais? I think not. Don Quixote is different? Yes, Don Quixote is different. That is why it is the only one there is. If we don’t ask the impossible of Miller he is pretty satisfactory. Certainly he is an awful lot better than the dreary practitioners of the fashion this book founded, and it is unfortunate that their success should make him seem a little dated after twenty-seven years.


III (1962)

Henry Miller is a baffling man. He is the perfect salesman. He believes every word he tells the customers. Few drummers who peddle the ordinary run of commodities have blind faith in their lines. They take it all with a grain of salt, it’s just another pitch. House-to-house peddling on a strictly commission basis is another matter. There the motto is, “Sell the salesman. He’ll sell his aunts and uncles and friends and neighbors. When he’s used them up, he’ll quit and we’ll get another salesman.” It’s all done by combining the Law of Averages and 100 percent turnover.

Henry Miller is an elderly gentlemen who bears a distinct physical resemblance to a very successful salesman of brushes or photo coupons. The resemblance is more than physical. He enjoys the same blind faith in his product. In his case the product is alienation. He is convinced that he is a scorned and rejected prophet. He believes that the artist in America is a pariah. He believes that he has been persecuted because he was a great artist and an even greater thinker.

Writers talk like this to the customers. It is handy when you want to make a girl or when you’ve been arrested for stabbing your wife. Does anybody really believe it? Yes, Henry Miller. In actual fact, for years he has lived an extremely comfortable life. He has a nice home below Big Sur, where his neighbors are mostly millionaires. Few writers in our time have received more lavish adulation. He travels about, judging movies at Cannes and novels in Majorca. He has been suggested for the Nobel Prize. When his bestseller Tropic of Cancer got in trouble in suburbia, the leading literary academicians — whom he despises — came to his defense and talked learnedly about the profound social and moral significance of a book which is simply a traditional picaresque comedy. He is a respected and even revered member of the American Establishment, considerably more so than Engine Charley Wilson or Wayne Morse. But he refuses to believe it. He believes in the comforting myth of his own iconoclasm.

Stand Still Like the Hummingbird is a collection of such myths, Henry Miller the boss iconoclast, bestowing his accolade on his fellow iconoclasts. It is all very excited and exciting. It sounds precisely like the funny conversations in the Tropics and Black Spring. The only trouble is, thirty years have gone by and Henry Miller is no longer a poor boy with holes in his socks, arguing about Dostoievsky by gas light and picking up file clerks on the Brooklyn subway.

The results are hilarious. One of the most hilarious essays in the book is a puff for Ionesco, another boss iconoclast. As a matter of fact, the essay is mostly taken up with the expensive adventures of a successful author touring France with his children (namely, H. Miller) and a totally uncritical repetition of Ionesco’s own sales pitches. Ionesco, of course, is the exact reverse of an iconoclast. He is a practically perfect example of a man who has turned the postures and argot of alienation into an immensely fashionable and profitable and very, very gimmicky — commodity. Ionesco an outsider? I’m laughing . . . almost as much as I laughed over the picaresque bawdry of Black Spring.



The first essay, a review of The Henry Miller Reader (ed. Lawrence Durrell, New Directions, 1959), appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle (3 January 1960). The second, a review of Tropic of Cancer, appeared in The Nation (1 July 1961). The third, a review of Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, appeared ca.1962 (original publication unknown). The last two were combined and reprinted under the title “Henry Miller: The Iconoclast as Everyman’s Friend” in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1960, 1970. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[Another Rexroth essay on Henry Miller]

[Other Rexroth essays]





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