Henry Valentine Miller was born on 26 December 1891 to tailor Heinrich Miller and Louise Marie Neiting, in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, New York City, of German Catholic heritage. As a child he lived at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As a young man, he was active with the Socialist Party (his "quondam idol" was the Black Socialist Hubert Harrison), he tried a variety of jobs and briefly attended the City College of New York. In both 1928 and 1929, he spent several months in Paris with his second wife, June Edith Smith (June Miller). He moved to Paris the next year unaccompanied, where he lived until the outbreak of World War II. He lived an impecunious lifestyle that depended on the benevolence of friends, such as Anaïs Nin, who became his lover and financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer in 1934.
In the fall of 1931, Miller got a job with the Chicago Tribune (Paris edition) as a proofreader, thanks to his friend Alfred Perlès who worked there. Miller took the opportunity to submit some of his articles under Perl's name, since only the editorial staff were permitted to publish in the paper in 1934.
Henry Miller's works contain detailed accounts of sexual experiences, and his books did much to free the discussion of sexual subjects in American writing from both legal and social restrictions. He continued to write novels that were banned in the United States on grounds of obscenity. Along with Tropic of Cancer, his Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), were smuggled into his native country, building Miller an underground reputation. One of the first acknowledgments of Henry Miller as a major modern writer was by George Orwell in his 1940 essay Inside the Whale, where he wrote: "Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses."
In 1940, he returned to the United States, settling in Big Sur, California, and continued to produce his vividly written works that challenged contemporary American cultural values and moral attitudes. He spent the last years of his life in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles.
The publication of Miller's Tropic of Cancer in the United States in 1961 led to a series of obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein, citing Jacobellis v. Ohio (which was decided the same day in 1964), overruled the state court findings of obscenity and declared the book a work of literature; it was one of the notable events in what has come to be known as the sexual revolution. Elmer Gertz, the lawyer who successfully argued the initial case for the novel's publication in Illinois, became a lifelong friend of Miller's. Volumes of their correspondence have been published.
In addition to his literary abilities, Miller was a painter and wrote books about his painting. He was a close friend of the French painter Grégoire Michonze. He was also an amateur pianist. Miller was portrayed by Fred Ward in the 1990 movie Henry & June, and by Rip Torn in the 1970 film adaptation of Tropic of Cancer. In the 1970 Jens Jørgen Thorsen adaptation of Quiet Days in Clichy, the Miller-based character of 'Joey' was played by the late Paul Valjean. A subsequent adaptation in 1990 saw Andrew McCarthy play the Miller role as 'Henry Miller' himself. Before his death, Miller filmed with Warren Beatty for his film Reds. He spoke of his remembrances of Jack Reed and Louise Bryant as part of a series of cameos or witnesses. The film was released a year and a half after Miller's death.
Henry Miller died on 7 June 1980 in Pacific Palisades. After his death, he was cremated and his ashes scattered off Big Sur. Miller's papers were donated to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Young Research Library Department of Special Collections. The Henry Miller Art Museum at Coast Gallery in Big Sur, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and UCLA all hold a selection of Miller's watercolours, as The Henry Miller Museum of Art in Omachi City in Nagano, Japan, did before closing in 2003.
[Megakles Rogakos 12/2005]
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Tropic of Cancer 1934 Obelisk Press, Paris What Are You Going to Do about Alf? 1935 author's expense, Paris Aller Retour New York 1935 Obelisk Press, Paris Black Spring 1936 Obelisk Press, Paris Max and the White Phagocytes 1938 Obelisk Press, Paris Tropic of Capricorn 1939 Obelisk Press, Paris Henry Miller's Hamlet Letters - Vol. I (with Michael Fraenkel) 1939 Carrefour, Santurce, Puerto Rico Henry Miller's Hamlet Letters - Vol. II (with Michael Fraenkel) 1941 Carrefour, New York Henry Miller's Hamlet Letters - Vol. I complete 1943 Carrefour, New York The Cosmological Eye 1939 New Directions, New York The World of Sex 1940 Ben Abramson, Argus Book Shop, Chicago The Colossus of Maroussi 1941 Colt Press, San Francisco The Wisdom of the Heart 1941 New Directions, New York Sunday after the War 1944 New Directions, New York Semblance of a Devoted Past 1944 Bern Porter, Berkeley, California The Plight of the Creative Artist in the United States of America 1944 Bern Porter, Houlton, Maine Echolalia 1945 Bern Porter, Berkeley, California Henry Miller Miscellanea 1945 Bern Porter, San Mateo, California Why Abstract? (with Hilaire Hiller and William Saroyan) 1945 New Directions, New York The Air-Conditioned Nightmare 1945 New Directions, New York Maurizius Forever 1946 Colt Press, San Francisc Remember to Remember 1947 New Directions, New York Into the Night Life 1947 privately published The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder 1948 Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York Sexus (Book One of The Rosy Crucifixion) 1949 Obelisk Press, Paris The Waters Reglitterized 1950 John Kidis, San Jose, California The Books in My Life 1952 New Directions, New York Plexus (Book Two of The Rosy Crucifixion) 1953 Olympia Press, Paris Quiet Days in Clichy 1956 Olympia Press, Paris The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud 1956 New Directions, New York Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch 1957 New Directions, New York The Red Notebook 1958 Jonathan Williams, Highlands, North Carolina Reunion in Barcelona 1959 Scorpion Press, Northwood, England Nexus (Book Three of The Rosy Crucifixion) 1960 Obelisk Press, Paris To Paint Is to Love Again 1960 Cambria Books, Alhambra, California Watercolors, Drawings, and Essay "The Angel Is My Watermark" 1962 Abrams, New York Stand Still Like the Hummingbird 1962 New Directions, New York Just Wild about Harry 1963 New Directions, New York Greece (with drawings by Anne Poor) 1964 Viking Press, New York Opus Pistorum 1983 Grove Press, New York Insomnia or The Devil at Large 1974 Doubleday and Company, New York