Henry Miller was born December 26, 1891 in New York, New York.
During his first year of life, Miller's family moved to Brooklyn, where
the whole of his childhood was spent. In 1909, Miller graduated from high
school and entered City College of New York where he stayed for only two
months. Not being able to bear the academic routine, Miller went to work
at a variety of jobs. Everything from a cab driver to librarian. In 1917,
Miller met and married the first of five wives, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens,
with whom he has one child. Miller took a job with Western Union telegraph
service in 1920 where his first endeavor into writing took place.
Miller's boss came to him one day with the idea that someone should write
a book about messengers. He proposed something along the lines of "Horatio
Alger," what Miller came up with was "Clipped Wings." This
is a story of twelve messengers along the lines of Dostoevsky, rather than
Horatio Alger. Miller wrote about "gentle souls, insulted and injured,
who run amok or suffer violence; the stories are full of bitterness and
horror, ending in murder or suicide, usually both" (Wickes 1974:170-192).
Miller realized that the work was a failure because he knew nothing of writing,
but this endeavor spawned the urge to learn about writing.
Miller worked for the messenger service as a manager for four years until
meeting his second wife, June Edith Smith Mansfield. June, a taxi driver,
supported Miller so that he could pursue his artistic love and, at this
point, life's dream. In 1928, June saved enough money for the two of them
to travel to Europe, giving Miller a taste of what he considered civilized
life. Problems with June persuaded Miller to leave for Paris in 1930, where
he continued full time with his long and lucrative career as a writer of
more than 36 creative and analytical works.
Miller's entrance into the writer's circle began with Tropic of Cancer,
which still proves to be Miller's most famous work. Tropic of Cancer
and Tropic of Capricorn chronicle Miller's lives and loves as an
expatriate in Paris. They were both originally published in France by Jack
Kahane at Obelisk Press in the mid-thirties. When the works were brought
to the United States, they spawned a thirty year censorship debate that
was eventually won by Miller. Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of
Capricorn were published by Grove Press through the efforts of Barney
Rosset. This event is still noted as the first "forced acceptance of
banned books in the United States" (Wickes 1974:170-192).
Soon after the publishing of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of
Capricorn, Miller's other works to date were published in the United
States. During this time it was said that "Miller became a legendary
character, a kind of folk hero, the Paul Bunyan of literature, larger than
life as exile, bohemian, and rebel, the great champion of freedom of expression
and other lost causes" (Wickes 1974:170-192). Miller's works became
famous and were soon best sellers. Tropic of Cancer sold over two
and a half million copies in the first two years of publication, thus earning
Miller the comfort to live a life that he had not known as a beggar in the
streets of Paris. Reflecting on those days, Miller would tell a story of
the last time that he begged. A man dressed for the opera was walking in
front of Miller, as he approached the man with the inevitable question:
the man pushed Henry aside rudely and walked on without a word. Then with his back to Miller, he reached into his pockets and threw a handful of change in the mud filled gutter. "I was really degraded, humiliated, you know. But there I was down on my hands and knees, picking up the change and wiping the mud off. Right then and there I swore I'd never beg again and I didn't. I've known it all. Every humiliation, degradation, poverty, starvation" (Kraft 1993:477).
Miller's days in Paris found him in the company of many characters. On his
first visit to Europe he met Alfred Perles, a long friendship, documented
in Miller's book Quiet Days in Clichy, ensued. Along with Perles,
Miller had another close male friend called Michael Fraenkel, with whom
he co-authored the book Hamlet. Hamlet is based on the
letters of the two men. They made a pack with each other to continue writing
letters on a variety of subjects, beginning with Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The agreement was based on letters that could not end until, together, they
had completed one thousand pages. Both men were avid arguers and had no
problem continuing their individual diatribes. Miller's final letter was
over one hundred pages long. "Miller found the letter a congenial form,
a written monologue, running on about the weather, ideas, books, recent
experiences, all loosely linked by the amusing personality of the writer"
While in Paris, Miller also befriended a woman who was to be a long time
lover and occasional benefactor, Anais Nin. Their friendship is ironically
documented by Nin rather than Miller. Her diaries which fill a multitude
of volumes document social engagements, their love affair and a love affair
with Miller's wife, June. These stories were made famous in the 1992 feature
film, Henry and June. Although Nin was married they spent several
years as lovers and critics of each others work while Miller was in Paris.
Miller left Paris in 1939 after the publication of Tropic of Capricorn.
A life long friend whom Miller met in Paris, Lawrence Durell, had many times
invited Miller to come to Greece. Now that Miller was out from under the
weight of Tropic of Capricorn, he had the freedom to take Durell
up on the offer. Miller's six months in Greece were filled with constant
celebration until the outbreak of World War II, which prompted his return
to the United States. While in Greece Miller wrote what many critics believe
to be his finest work of "literature," The Colossus of Maroussi.
This is basically a travel book with a bit more. The Colossus of Maroussi
conveys a metaphysical insight into the place which Miller considers a "holy
land." What Miller tried to achieve with the book was "not archaeology
or history, but a feeling of kinship with the men of the past" (Wickes
Upon Miller's return to the United States, he decided to travel the country
which was the impetus of another travel book, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
"Why is it that in America the great works of art are all Nature's
doing?" Miller believed that the majority of people in the United States
were all dead, "all but the Negroes, Indians and an occasional nonconformist.
The American way of life has created a spiritual and cultural wasteland."
While Miller was traveling the United States he happened upon Big Sur where
he settled and lived from 1944 to 1963.
When Miller moved to Big Sur he helped establish the area as an artists
colony with himself being the "leading prophet," aside from Robinson Jeffers, who had been in the area since 1914. At this time Miller had not quite achieved the fame that would eventually ensue after
the publication of Tropic of Cancer, but a great many people made
pilgrimages to visit the great "underground" writer that had been
banned in the United States. "Pilgrims came from all parts of the country
and abroad, so many that eventually he had to leave. It is characteristic
of America and this day of public images that Miller should be identified
as the monkish Sage of Big Sur" (Wickes 1974:170-192).
Now with an audience, Miller's writing went through a transformation. Miller
became more "literary," a word and concept that disgusted him.
His thoughts became more spiritual yet, cohesive with form and analysis.
Theme began to surface clearly. While in the past his writing had been a
pure, stream of conscious type documentation, his writing became clear and
the want for an audience dissipated. After so many years of want, the lust
for fame left him.
While living in Big Sur, Miller married two more of his eventual five wives,
Janina Martha Lepska, with who he had two children, and in 1953, Eve McClure.
With his two children, Tony and Valentine, Miller lived on Partington Ridge,
also referred to as Anderson's Point. The house was on a plateau two thousand
feet above the Pacific Ocean. "About fifty feet from the house, the land simply ended, and it was an abrupt decent to the sea far below." At this place in Miller's life he finished the work that immortalized Big Sur in the world of literature, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch was Miller's Walden. Big Sur conjured up the concept of a utopia for Miller, as Walden had done for Thoreau.
Finally in 1960 it became too much for Miller and his present wife, Eve
McClure. The constant visitors and imposing house guests. Their world had
taken on a busyness that caused Miller to often stop and think "Where
was I?" After traveling around Europe for a year, Miller retired himself
to Pacific Palisades in Southern California. Here he left the practice of
writing daily and substituted it with painting daily. He still wrote and
published occasionally, but writing was no longer the driving force in Miller's
The last twenty years of Miller's life, spent in Pacific Palisades, were
humbling ones. His body slowly deteriorated, yet his wit and artistic capabilities
stayed in tact. Miller spent much of his time reflecting on his turbulent
life with interviewers and close friends. When often questioned about writing
he has said, "It's a curse. Yes, it's a flame. It owns you. It has
possession over you. You are not the master of yourself. You are consumed
by this thing. And the books you write. They're not you. They're not me
sitting here, this Henry Miller. They belong to someone else. It's terrible.
You can never rest. People used to envy me my inspiration. I hate inspiration.
It takes you over completely. I could never wait until it passed and I got
rid of it" (Kraft 1993:477).
Miller's life ended on June 7, 1980 in his Pacific Palisades home. He was
with his caregiver Bill Pickerill, who had lived with Miller for several
years. The clearest end for Miller's own life come from his own words, written
in The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder:
Perhaps I have not limned his portrait too clearly. But if he
exists, if only for the reason that I have imagined him to be. He came from
the blue and returns to the blue. He has not perished, he is not lost. Neither
will he be forgotten.
Copyright © 1996 by Wendy Moss