A few hours before the Washington Redskins consummately humiliated the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 Superbowl, I unfortunately asked a fellow American, an editor who has lived in Paris for ten years, to join a group of men and women for a beer, place a few bets, and watch the game with us live on Canal+. ‘Football is a most distasteful sport,’ sneered the American expatriate. ‘The game has no place in my life.’
I don’t know if Henry Miller was a football fan, but after reading his long-lost novel Crazy Cock, which was located by Miller scholar Mary Dearborn, together with Dearborn’s biography of the quintessential American writer in Paris, I suspect that a couple of Buds combined with his romantic streak would have made Miller take the Bills without any regard to the point spread. Miller, as both Crazy Cock and The Happiest Man Alive amply illustrate, never got sucked into the limbo of ‘those insufferable American idiots at the Dôme and Coupole’.
‘Henry’s gravelly voice let everyone immediately know that he was an American,’ George Whitman, the owner of the Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris, recently recalled.
He never turned into one of those phoney American artists around town. Henry was a native American first, although he considered American air-conditioning a nightmare. He never pal’d around with the literati. He walked the streets to learn French like an itinerant scholar and hung out with astrologers and real characters.
Henry used to come over to Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company in the middle of the night and wake us all up with bottles of wine. I think it was 1931 when Henry met another young expat writer by the name of Alfred Perles. Alfred was mowing the lawn at the American Golf and Country Club, and the expat members were putting out this horrible and pretentious literary magazine called the Booster. So Alfred told the club that he was a writer, and got Henry to help him re-do the Booster. The club members went crazy over Henry’s high jinks in the magazine.
Like many American writers in Paris before the advent of the computer, Miller landed his first Paris job as a proof-reader at the Herald Tribune, hoping for something better to come along and kick-start his career. For him it was the Booster. In a letter soliciting lifetime subscriptions for 500 francs each, he announced that the editors were planning to
boost, baste and lambast when and wherever possible. Mostly we shall boost. We like to boost, and of course to begin with we are going to boost ourselves. In general we are for things. But in our own cute way. We will publish poems, essays, serious articles, witticisms, philosophy or metaphysics, travel and diary notes, fragments, unfinished novels, rejected manuscripts, and ... the ripe and cheesy things which have been lying in trunks for years.
And what a powerpacked masthead! Managing editor: Alfred Perles; society editor: Anais Nin; sports editor: Charles Nordon (aka Lawrence Durrell); butter news editor: Walter Lowenfels; department of metaphysics and metapsychosis: Michael Fraenkel; fashion editor: Earl of Selvage (aka Henry Miller); and Lawrence Durrell and William Saroyan as the literary editors. As Dearborn notes in a wonderful chapter on life at the Villa Seurat, Miller’s Paris address, ‘most of the editors were appointed without first being consulted: Saroyan, for example, claimed never to have met Miller in Paris. Though outwardly comical, Miller as fashion editor displayed his not inconsiderable knowledge about the subject, gleaned from his early years as a tailor’s son and his stint in Heinrich’s shop. Although he wore used clothes and corduroys in his Paris years, he maintained a keen appreciation for fine fabrics and an eye for a good cut.’
The American Golf and Country Club holds the distinction of being the first institution to spit and fume over Henry Miller, and Crazy Cock will certainly continue to enrage the puritan crowd that he once said would fish-eye him as ‘the lowest of the low when they see Cancer. Crazy Cock is the roughly written but interesting Greenwich Village story of the relationship between a young man, his wife and her lesbian lover. It was Miller’s third novel, and it’s full of the sexual pitch and youthful literary eagerness which start café brawls and outrage high school librarians. Of course, the sheer force of Miller’s language in Crazy Cock didn’t fare too well in New York, which is one of the reasons he came to Paris in March 1930, returning in 1940 to California and an existence Dearborn sadly and accurately describes as a ‘life in poverty as America’s most famous banned writer’.
As Erica Jong writes in her foreword to Crazy Cock,
In New York it was a dishonour to be an unknown writer; in Paris one could write écrivain on one’s passport and hold one’s head high. In New York it was, and still is, assumed that unless you fill up your time with appointments, you are a bum ... In the last few years we have seen a dramatic replay of these attitudes in the debates over censorship and the National Endowment for the Arts. Our essential mistrust of the dreamer leads us to cripple him or her with restrictions of all sorts. We honour the money-counters and money-changers above the inventors and dreamers, who give them something to count and change. This is a deep seated American obsession.
Crazy Cock’s opening words, ‘a remote and desolate corner of America’, set the atmosphere for the sexual torment and confusion to come splashing over the ‘gut table’ of a New York apartment. Even today, the reader need not have escaped from Greenwich Village to Paris to find the description of Manhattan’s ersatz bohemian quarter disturbingly vivid.
In the beginning there were cow paths and the cow paths were all there was of the Village. Today she sprawls out like a sick bitch debilitated by an attack of delirium tremens. Dreary. Greasy. Depressing. Tourists dragging themselves along by the roots of their hair. Poets who haven’t written anything since 1917. Jewish pirates whose cutlasses intimidate nobody. Insomnia. Cock-eyed dreams of love. Rape in a telephone booth. Perverts from the vice squad hugging the lamp-posts. Cossacks with fallen arches. A bohemian world jacked up with a truss. Hammocks on the third floor.
In Crazy Cock, Miller depicts the desperation that overtook him when his second wife, June Mansfield Smith, skipped to Europe in 1927 with her lesbian lover Jean Kronski, obliging a broke and humiliated 36-year-old Miller to move back in with his parents in Brooklyn and take a non-writing job. He had yet to set up house in Paris: Crazy Cock is his poorly done passport photo, the first leg of a trip that ended with Tropic of Cancer in 1934, a voyage through agony, mainlined cocaine, and a malignancy of characters in riot and disorder who end up going ‘down like deserted ships, sloops too rotten to weather the first storm’.
Dearborn’s biography chronicles Miller’s entire journey, and her intelligent writing and knack for detail make the book an exhilarating ride into every aspect of the author’s life. The Happiest Man Alive is, above all, entertaining, which with luck will make Miller more appetising to readers who have been nourished on pulp fiction, politically-correct non-fiction, and the propaganda that Miller was a pornographer. The ability to write an inviting narrative for a mass audience on a subject that usually attracts what Miller called ‘mock-scholarship’ is a rare talent these days. The Happiest Man Alive bubbles with the vivid images and anecdotes that made up Miller’s life.
Crazy Cock, however, is by no means a safe book for 1992: Jews are ‘kikes’, homosexuals are ‘faggots’, and the Republican-controlled National Endowment of the Arts most certainly would not grant any money to a writer who spends pages describing haemorrhoid lubrication in graphically entertaining detail. Despite Miller’s use of sexist and racist words and the mushroom cloud of rage that still engulfs his writing, Crazy Cock is perhaps the best literary primer on the myriad emotional reasons why American writers leave the US – especially those who laugh at the Newspeak claim that George Bush understands foreign policy.
But then hard-core political activists of Miller’s time always groused that Miller never understood politics. As Dearborn says of his pre-war years in Paris,
political matters were also on Miller’s mind, and the views he set forth were often wilfully offensive. In a letter to Durrell, he said: ‘I like that last speech of Hitler’s – makes me sympathise with him and his ami Mussolini.’ But his instinctive dislike of the Germans made him suspicious of Hitler, whose ‘cheap butter-and-egg mysticism’ he decried to another friend. He drew the line, too, at Hitler’s 1936 speeches attacking the Bolsheviks and the Jews, telling Frank Dobo that even a ‘Jew-baiter’ like himself couldn’t ‘swallow such drivel’. What emerges from these half-serious and contradictory asides is a sense of Miller’s overwhelming political naivety. He seemed genuinely to think that his genius extended to politics, and he was constantly making pronouncements about the future and the course of the oncoming war that were uniformly as wrong as they could possibly be.
Dearborn explores Miller’s politics in her chapter on the Villa Seurat years. What emerges is Miller the crudely sharp political satirist, particularly in his dealings with the stuffy Orwell, who was about to leave to fight Franco.
In passing, he looked up Miller, and the two passed an afternoon together. Miller spoke candidly to Orwell about his own pacifism, saying that he found it idiotic to fight for any cause. Civilisation was doomed anyway, he claimed, and it was useless to defend it. Orwell confessed he felt guilty for having served in the police force in Burma, and Miller countered that it was ridiculous for Orwell to flagellate himself still further. The two men parted amicably. Miller pressing a corduroy jacket on Orwell as his ‘contribution to the Spanish Republican cause’.
Politics, Dearborn writes, impeded the developing friendship between Miller and Orwell: Miller would probably have said it was the corduroy jacket. Nearly sixty years later, Orwell is one of Great Britain’s most civilly honoured writers and required reading in schools, and Miller ... well, as a friend of mine who eats lunch at the White House mess tells me, a Republican campaign worker recently calculated the voter mileage in awarding the mesmerising techno-thriller author Tom Clancy a grant from the National Endowment in this election year. The White House conception of the ideal American writer to advertise at home and abroad would certainly not be Miller. Irony and sex don’t sell in politics, which is why Miller is banned as pornographic or persecuted for undermining conventional wisdom in many US schools. Miller is an easy target. When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, the word used to describe such belligerent stupidity was ‘jagoff’. Now it’s ‘politically correct’. Miller put it this way: ‘If it was not good, it was true; if it was not artistic, it was sincere; if it was in bad taste, it was on the side of life.’
Americans do not burn books any more: they burn ideas, and there are bonfires all over the US these days. Perhaps not surprisingly, America has always exercised censorship on its best writers (until 1960, a bookseller could be jailed for selling a Miller novel), while complaining that its children cannot read (the French awarded Miller the Légion d’Honneur for his writing). Miller obliquely describes America’s bullying puritanism and the lure of France in Crazy Cock as
America trying to stand on its hind legs ... In France there were clever fellows who used the needle every once in a while. A new book every six months – with illustrations too. No limits to their fecundity. But in America, somehow, a cocaine atmosphere wouldn’t produce literature. America was producing gunmen and beer barons. Literature was being left to women. Everything was left to woman, except womanhood.
There are no quiet policy shifts in American sexual politics, and Crazy Cock is a steroid for the hormonal crisis currently under way in American bookshops. 1992 has Robert Bly and his middle-aged Boy Scouts leaping through forests dressed in feathers and pounding drums to scare the furry creatures, consecrate testosterone, and push the sale of Iron John. In Revolution From Within, Campfire Girl Gloria Steinem chronicles her exasperating fall and rise and fall and rise and fall and rise in male-dominated America with the crackle of a marshmallow heaving over a flame.
Miller would have loved it all and outraged them all. During his cameo appearance as one of the choral witnesses in the movie Reds, speaking about the leftish environment that hosted the love affair between Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, he commented on the sexual relationships of his own early years. ‘There was just as much fucking going on then as now,’ he said, ‘only now it has a more perverted quality, now there’s no love whatever included. Then there was ... a bit of heart in it.’
It’s a shame that Miller is not around to report on the War of the Hormones. Miller fathomed or, at the very least, had the ability to jump in and describe the beautiful and often ugly forces that both separate men and women and bring them together. Crazy Cock is such a dispatch from the front, and Miller’s critics, as they always have, will use the novel’s sexual and political incorrectness to scumble the reality that he understood the ever-present prejudices and confusions of men and women better than any of the talk-show circuit munchkins or op-ed page opinion-peddlers.
Dearborn alleges that Miller thoroughly misunderstood the central issue of the feminist debate because he insisted, repeatedly, that he loved women, wrongly taking that to be the central issue. Miller was a romantic, Dearborn says, and he ‘was simply too old-fashioned to embrace or even understand the goals of the women’s movement’. In fact, Miller, even in his later years, grasped the feminist movement better than most men. He just didn’t like where it was going. Although, as Dearborn discerningly points out, ‘Miller’s own sexual anxieties bound him irrevocably to the distinctions between the sexes, and he could be truly comfortable only when his female partner conformed to his old and now outdated stereotypes of the feminine,’ she is wrong to say that Miller’s ‘sexism’, particularly in his youth, reflected nothing more than the honest sorrow he felt for women who, as he says in Crazy Cock, gave up their womanhood. Miller, who made this dangerous point with all the tact of a wolfhound on heat, was perhaps one of the best friends the women’s movement has ever had. As The Happiest Man Alive recounts, even Anais Nin, ‘the model of modern womanhood’, made ‘careful distinctions between Miller the man and Miller the writer, insisting that he himself was much gentler and more loving than his books suggested’. Nin’s respect for Miller always has been a thorn in the side of the feminist movement’s anti-Miller militants.
The modern American writers who have come to Paris in Miller’s wake all identify, in one way or another, with Tropic of Cancer. Most of this new wave, schooled in America during the late Sixties and early Seventies, see Tropic of Cancer as a guide book and Miller as a pioneer of free speech. They identify with the young Miller because, like him, they have scorned traditional education, despaired of their emotional relationships and the monotony of a nine-to-five job, and wanted to meet like-minded men and women who might inspire them to great deeds amid the pleasurably alien culture of Paris. ‘Crazy Cock is fascinating because it shows us the New York that Miller fled and the reasons that he had to flee in order to find himself as a writer,’ Jong explains in the novel’s foreword. ‘Just as the Paris books are bursting with sunshine. Crazy Cock is dour, dismal, grey. The liveliest thing about it is its title.’
The America that Dearborn describes Miller returning to in 1940 is also grim. ‘Nowhere have I encountered such a dull, monotonous fabric of life as here in America,’ as he says in the opening pages of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the original American-on-the-road book which predates Jack Kerouac by over a decade and was sketched from behind the wheel of a 1932 Buick. ‘What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this is sane activity? The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle.’
Dearborn zeros in on a Miller anecdote from his years as a Western Union (Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company) employment manager which targets his legacy for every new generation of young American writers. ‘On a three-week vacation in 1922, Miller willed into being a book-length manuscript.’ Dearborn writes. ‘Galled by his employer’s suggestion that it was too bad there was no Horatio Alger tale about a messenger, and inspired by the example of Theodore Dreiser’s Twelve Men, which he much admired, Miller turned out a work he would call Clipped Wings. The title referred to the wings of the Western Union emblem, and the book was a portrait of 12 messengers, angels, whose wings had been clipped. The fragments of the manuscript that survive indicate that the book was a tedious exercise in cynicism and misanthropy; Miller himself said that he knew it was faulty from start to finish ... inadequate, bad, terrible.’
‘The vicissitudes of his own remarkable life,’ Dearborn later points out, ‘and not those of the other players in it, were his surest literary subjects, he had learned; it was an important discovery.’ Miller once said that he came to Paris with ten dollars in his pocket because the city was paradise, and sailed back to America when he discovered that paradise, too, has walls. Although he arrived in France almost a decade after the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, he fixed for ever the image of the American writer in Paris. Things have long changed in paradise, what has remained is the ability of France to attract artists and Paris’s passion to keep its romantic soul without legislating political correctness. Today the French may be insecure about their cultural role in an expanding Europe, but they are still just as willing and eager to accept, nurture and make one of their own every American castaway from Jerry Lewis to La Toya Jackson. Paris, if not paradise, is the nearest thing America has to one.
Jet planes have made it easier for Americans to return Stateside whenever paradise’s walls rear up again, and satellite television allows us an instant look at the wreckage piling up on the other side of the barrier. But no matter who the American writer in Paris is today, and no matter his or her politics or reasons for living in the Tropic of Cancer, we all feel that we know Henry Miller better than most. He was the best and the brightest of the American writers who called Paris home, and his years here set the tone for those who followed him. The choice Miller essay for any American transplanted in Paris may well be ‘Je suis pas plus con qu’un autre’, the pamphlet he wrote in the French he learned on the streets of Paris, leaving instructions that his thank-you note to France was never to be translated into English.
Miller’s brain slipped four weeks before he died, in California, on 7 June 1980, of cardiovascular failure. According to Dearborn, he spent the last month of his life believing he was in Paris.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.