Biography of Henry Miller, Novelist

Henry Miller
Portrait of the author Henry Miller (1891 - 1980), California, mid twentieth century.

Anthony Barboza / Getty Images 

Henry Miller (December 26, 1891—June 7, 1980) was an American writer who published several semi-autobiographical novels that broke from conventional form in both style and subject matter. His stream-of-consciousness blend of personal philosophy, social critique, and candid depictions of sex cemented him as a rebel in both life and art. His writing was banned for decades in the United States, and once published in the 1960s, altered the laws involving free expression and obscenity in America. 

Fast Facts: Henry Miller

  • Full Name: Henry Valentine Miller
  • Known For: Bohemian American writer whose novels broke the conventional form, style and subject matter of 20th century literature.
  • Born: December 26, 1891 in Yorkville, Manhattan, New York
  • Parents: Louise Marie (Neiting), Heinrich Miller
  • Died: June 7, 1980, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California
  • Selected Works: Tropic of Cancer (1934), Tropic of Capricorn (1939), The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), Sexus (1949),, Quiet Days in Clichy (1956), Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957)
  • Spouses: Beatrice Sylvas Wickens (m. 1917; div. 1924), June Miller (m. 1924; div. 1934), Janina Martha Lepska (m. 1944; div. 1952), Eve McClure (m. 1953; div. 1960), Hiroko Tokuda (m. 1967; div. 1977)
  • Children: Barbara, Valentine, and Tony
  • Notable Quote: "One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."

Early Life

Henry Miller was born in Yorkville, Manhattan, New York City, on December 26, 1891. His parents, Louise Marie and Heinrich Miller, were Lutheran, and his grandparents on both sides had emigrated from Germany to the United States. Heinrich was a tailor, and moved the family to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Henry spent his childhood. The area was predominantly German and home to many immigrants. Although Henry lived an impoverished childhood in what he coined the "14th Ward," this period sparked his imagination and contained many joyful memories that would resurface in later works like Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. Henry had a sister, Lauretta, who was four years younger than him and mentally impaired. Throughout their childhoods, the siblings both suffered from their mother’s bursts of physical and emotional abuse. Henry’s extended family was riddled with mental health issues, incest, and alcoholism, and he attributed his psychological introspection, interest in esoteric philosophy, and manic, creative drive to his unstable familial background.

In 1901, nine years later, the family moved to Bushwick, to what Henry called "the street of early sorrows." He was a good student and graduated from Eastern District High School, but he did not last long in further education. Henry went to the City College of New York for only one month, deeply disappointed by the coursework selections and the strictness of formal education. He started working as a clerk at the Atlas Portland Cement Co., where he stayed for three years, continuing to read and self educate. He was fascinated by Chinese philosophers and the idea of the Tao, as well as the phenomenon of "New Thought" and astrology. For a brief while, he went to California and worked on a cattle ranch in 1913. He returned to New York and worked at his father’s tailor shop from 1913 until 1917, still voraciously reading and worshipping works such as Henry Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1907). Despite all his intake of literature, he was self-conscious about his own writing.

New York Years

  • Moloch: or, This Gentile World (written 1927, published posthumously in 1992)
  • Crazy Cock (written 1928-30, published posthumously in 1991)

Henry was 22 when he met Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, an amateur pianist whom he was taking piano lessons from. World War I began, and they married in part in 1917 so that Henry could escape the draft. Their marriage was not a happy one—the two constantly bickered, Henry recalling Beatrice as "frigid" and resultantly cheating over and over. The couple lived in Park Slope, took on boarders to help with the rent, and had a daughter named Barbara, born on September 30, 1919.

Henry was working at the Western Union Telegraph Co. during this period as an employment manager, and he stayed there for four years until 1924. He was writing on the side, and his first published work, an essay on Carl Clausen’s “The Unbidden Guest,” appeared in the magazine The Black Cat: Clever Short Stories. His time at Western Union would inspire his philosophy on American capitalism, and many of the people he encountered during this period were portrayed in his book Tropic of Capricorn. He notably met Emil Schnellock, a painter, in 1921, who initially inspired him to watercolor, a pastime he would enjoy for the rest of his life. He wrote and finished his first book in 1922, called Clipped Wings, but never had it published. He deemed it a failure but recycled some of its material for his later work, Moloch.

Miller’s life changed when he met June Mansfield (whose real name was Juliet Edith Smerth) in the summer of 1923 in the dance halls downtown. June was a 21-year-old dancer who shared his artistic passions—they both recognized a similar zeal for life and experience in each other. They had an affair and Miller divorced Beatrice in December of 1923. He married June the following year, on June 1, 1924. The newlyweds struggled financially, and moved to Brooklyn Heights to share an apartment with Emil Schnellock and his wife Cele Conason. Miller was fired from his job (although he claims to have quit), and he began to focus intensely on his writing. He sold candy for money and struggled to make ends meet, but this time of poverty became the material for his famed autobiographical trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion.

Miller wrote Crazy Cock during this time, about June’s romantic relationship with another artist, Jean Kronski, who lived with the couple for a year. The couple left Miller and went to Paris together, but had a falling out while abroad. June returned and met Ronald Freedman in New York, a rich admirer who promised to pay for her lifestyle in Europe if she wrote a novel. Miller then started writing This Gentile World, renamed Moloch, under June’s guise. It was about his first marriage and his time at the Western Union. In 1928, Miller completed the novel and June gave it to Freedman; the couple left for Paris in July and stayed through November. 

Paris Years

  • Tropic of Cancer (1934)
  • Aller Retour New York (1935)
  • Black Spring (1936)
  • Max and the White Phagocytes (1938)
  • Tropic of Capricorn (1939)
  • The Cosmological Eye (1939)

Miller loved Europe, and he moved to Paris alone in 1930. He had no money, and paid for hotels at first by selling his suitcases and clothes. When he ran out of funds, he slept under bridges, accompanied by only his toothbrush, raincoat, cane, and pen. His luck changed when he met Alfred Perles, an Austrian whom he had first encountered during his 1928 trip. The two lived together, while Perles helped Henry learn French. He easily created a circle of friends, of philosophers, writers, and painters, including the author Lawrence Durrell, and took in all the culture Paris had to offer. He was particularly influenced by the French Surrealists. He continued writing essays, some of which were published in the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. For a while he was employed as a proofreader of stock exchange quotations, but lost his job when he left abruptly for Belgium with a woman he was seeing.

Miller met Anaïs Nin during this period, who would become one of the paramount influences on his life creatively and emotionally. Even after they were romantically involved, the two retained a close relationship. Nin was a writer herself, famous for her short stories and erotica, and she helped him financially while he lived in Paris. She also edited and financed his first published book, Tropic of Cancer, a sexually charged autobiographical novel about his life in depression-era Paris and his search for spiritual evolution. It was published with Obelisk Press in Paris in 1934, and subsequently banned for obscenity in the United States. June and Miller divorced that year as well, after years of fighting and much emotional turmoil. Miller’s next novel, Black Spring, was published in June of 1936 also by Obelisk Press, followed by Tropic of Capricorn in 1939. His work continued to draw on the same themes as Tropic of Cancer, detailing Miller’s life growing up in Brooklyn and his life in Paris. Both titles were banned as well, but copies of his work were smuggled into the U.S., and Miller started to gain an underground notoriety. His first published book in America was The Cosmological Eye, published in 1939. 

Traveling Abroad and in America

  • The World of Sex (1940)
  • The Colossus of Maroussi (1941)
  • The Wisdom of the Heart (1941)
  • The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945)

Miller traveled to Greece with Lawrence Durrell in 1939, when World War II was impending and the Nazis had begun spreading their hold through Europe. Durrell was also a novelist, and wrote The Black Book, which had been inspired heavily by Tropic of Cancer. Their trip would become Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, which he wrote as soon as he came back to New York, and was published in 1941 by Colt Press after many rejections. The novel is a travel memoir of the landscape, and a portrait of the writer George Katsimbalis, and is considered by Miller to be his greatest work.

Miller wept when he saw Boston’s skyline on his journey home from Europe, horrified to return to America after over a decade away. He, however, did not stay long in New York. Miller wanted to travel the United States on a sort of spiritual quest for enlightenment. He bought a Buick with his friend, the painter Abraham Rattner, and together they set off on a road trip to experience the raw country. They toured the U.S. for a year, and Miller was shocked by (what he believed to be) the barbarous nature of the industrial regions. This trip would become his memoir The Air Conditioned Nightmare, which he finished in 1941. Due to its frankly negative stance as a critique of American culture and capitalism, it was not published during the patriotic pre-WWII times. Miller began writing Sexus next in 1942, which would be published in 1949. The novel was a thinly-veiled account of his life in Brooklyn as he fell in love with June (fictionalized as the character Mona). The novel was the first of Miller’s Rose Crucifix trilogy, followed by Nexus and Plexus. He would finish the set in 1959, only for it to be banned in the U.S. and published abroad in France and Japan.

California

  • Sunday After the War (1944)
  • The Plight of the Creative Artist in the United States of America (1944)
  • Why Abstract? (1945)
  • The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (1946)
  • Remember to Remember (1947)
  • Sexus (1949)
  • The Books in My Life (1952)
  • Plexus (1953)
  • A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, 1932-1953 (1987)
  • Quiet Days in Clichy (1956)
  • A Devil in Paradise (1956)
  • Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957)
  • Reunion in Barcelona: a Letter to Alfred Perlès, from Aller Retour New York (1959)
  • Nexus (1960)
  • Stand Still Like a Hummingbird (1962)
  • Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence (1963)
  • Henry Miller on Writing (1964)
  • Insomnia or the Devil at Large (1970)
  • My Life and Times (1971)
  • On Turning Eighty (1972)
  • The Nightmare Notebook (1975)
  • Henry Miller’s Book of Friends: A Tribute to Friends of Long Ago (1976)
  • Sextet (1977)
  • Letters to Emil (1989)

Miller moved to California after following a woman to the West Coast. He stayed and tried to find work as a screenwriter but hated the commercial and formulaic industry. Southern California and its automobile-saturated development was disconcerting as well, as he was used to walking. He traveled up the coast to Big Sur, where he lived in a remote cabin where there was no electricity and no telephone until the mid-1950s. He kept company with other writers, like Harry Partch and Emil White. He went back to the East Coast to visit his mother in 1944 when she was sick, and met Janina Martha Lepski, a Yale philosophy student 30 years his junior. They married in December in Denver, and the two settled in Big Sur. They had a daughter, Valentine, born on November 19, 1945, and a son, Henry Tony Miller, born on August 28, 1948. Miller would be married twice after he divorced Janina in 1952. Eve McClure, an artist 37 years younger than him, married him in 1953 and divorced him in 1960. In 1967, he married his fifth and last wife, singer Hoki Tokuda, and they would stay together for ten years, separating in 1977.

Henry Miller and Eve McClure
Author Henry Milller (1891 - 1980) sits with his fourth wife, artist Eve McClure and their two dogs, California, mid twentieth century. Larry Colwell/Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Miller’s novel Air Conditioned Nightmare, finally published in December 1945, was extremely critical of the consumerist culture and was received poorly by critics. His Tropic books were still being circulated in Europe however, and Miller was gaining popularity. He finally began making money as royalties began coming in from Europe. His books were smuggled into the States, and he became a major influence on the Beat writers and the counterculture movement. He then published Plexus in 1953, about his marriage to June and his struggles trying to make it as a writer, along with June’s affair with Jean Kronski. The novella Quiet Days in Clichy, about Miller’s experiences as an expatriate in Paris, was published in France by Olympia Press in 1956. He traveled to New York City in 1956, as his mother was very ill, living with his sister Lauretta in poverty. He had a brief, shocking reunion with June but was disturbed by her physical maladies and disheveled nature. By March, his mother had died, and Miller brought Lauretta with him back to California and put her in a rest home. Then, the last of the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy was published in 1959: Nexus follows the growing relationship between June and Jean and their escape to Paris, as well as the dissolution of Miller’s relationship with June. The three novels did well in Paris and Japan, although they were banned in the United States.

Miller wrote Big Sur and Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch during this period in California as well, and was his last ambitious literary effort. The novel was published in 1957 and depicts his experiences at Big Sur, containing portraitures of the landscape and the people who lived there, including his children Val and Tony. The latter part of the novel recounts a visit by Conrad Moricand, an astrologer Miller knew in Paris. Their relationship soured while he was visiting, and this episode was published as its own work called A Devil in Paradise. He also published many of his correspondences with his contemporaries during this decade, including his letters with Alfred Perles and Lawrence Durrell. His letters with Anaïs Nin were published posthumously in 1987, as were his correspondences with Irving Stettner, Emil Schnellock and John Cowper Powys.

Obscenity Trials

In 1961, Tropic of Cancer was finally published in the United States by Grove Press. It was a huge success, selling 1.5 million copies in the first year and another million the next. But it also garnered a moral backlash: there were some 60 lawsuits waged against its publication. His work was tested on grounds of pornography in Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein, and the Supreme Court declared it a work of literature. This marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of the sexual revolution in America. After the trial, which ended in 1965, the rest of Miller’s books were published by Grove: his Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn, and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. 

Literary Style and Themes

Henry Miller is considered one of the major writers of the 20th century, whose work spurred an upheaval of traditional forms, styles and subject matters in literature. As a ferocious reader of all kinds of culture and thought, his work was a vitalizing sieve of his boundless supply of thinkers and writers. He was especially influenced by the American Romanticists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, who delved into transcendentalism and championed retreating from society to nurture the individual self. He also loved the work of D.H. Lawrence, a sensory English novelist and poet, as well as the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky and French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He also drew on the many topics he was obsessed with, such as occultism, astrology, and other ancient philosophies.

Miller is most notable for writing on the theme of the human condition and the process of finding some sort of salvation or enlightenment in life. He lived abroad for a significant amount of his life, and thus turned a more worldly eye to America, offering a unique critique on American values and myths. He used his life and experiences as fodder, and he lived a bohemian lifestyle, surrounding himself with like-minded rebels, outsiders, and artists. The characters he wrote were portraits of all the people he knew. He used a stream-of-consciousness narration that was spontaneous, free-flowing and abundant. He delved into surrealism, and his imaginative, unconstrained style had an intensely liberating effect. He wrote mostly semi-autobiographies, in a kind of new genre he fashioned out of his own life experiences: a notable mixture of his philosophies, meditations, and depictions of sex. The latter subject material was hugely important to the sexual revolution, however his depiction of women would be critiqued at a later period with the rise of feminism and feminist writers. He also wrote travelogues and is well known for his letters with other writers. He would be a major influence for a whole slew of authors, including the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, Conrad McCarthy and Erica Jong all consider him to be a major influence as well. 

Death

Miller moved to Los Angeles in 1963, where he would live for the remainder of his life. He wrote a chapbook On Turning Eighty, and published a mere 200 copies in 1972. He died of circulatory complications at his home on June 7, 1980, at the age of 88. After his death, his work continued to be published: Moloch, one of his first novels written back in 1927, was finally published in 1992. Crazy Cock, also written during that decade, was published by Grove in 1991. 

Legacy

Henry Miller
Portrait of the author Henry Miller (1891 - 1980), California, mid twentieth century.  Larry Colwell/Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Henry Miller was a rebel and bohemian, who lived a life parallel to that which he advocated for: a life dedicated to freedom of expression. He was the ultimate impoverished artist, traveling extensively on the goodwill of those he met, and he never ceased to turn a critical and poetic eye to all he experienced. He is similar to one of his major influences, D.H. Lawrence, in that he reached for the instinctive pleasures of art, religion and sex, and turned from the machinery that was the morphing, industrialized society. As a pacifist and an anarchist, he was the ultimate countercultural guru. He was the subject of four documentary films made by Robert Snyder, served as an interviewee in Reds, a 1981 film by Warren Beatty, and had his novels Tropic of Cancer and Quiet Days in Clichy made into film (both in 1970).

His mark on 20th century literature, and more generally, expression as a whole, is undoubtedly significant. Our understanding of free speech as we know it today is in part due to Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, which won against charges of pornography for its frank depictions of sex. Many of his novels were banned and weren’t published in the United States until decades after they were circulated in Europe. Despite his books being banned, they were widely read and played a large influence on the works of many succeeding authors, including the writers of the Beat Generation. Although much of his work is critical of society, especially American culture with its emphasis on capitalism and labor, it resonates with many for its affirmative core: Miller’s sensory appreciation and attention toward the joy in life and everyday existence.

Sources

  • Calonne, David Stephen. Henry Miller. Reaktion Books, 2014.
  • Ferguson, Robert. Henry Miller: a Life. Faber And Faber, 2012.
  • Nazaryan, Alexander. “Henry Miller, Brooklyn Hater.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/henry-miller-brooklyn-hater.