Henry Miller, the great rogue elephant of American literature, is best known for his daring novels and stories. His exuberant prose, his bawdy humour, his stylistic innovations and his fate as a writer which oscillated between controversies. All this made Miller not only a great literary figure but also someone whose fame has only burgeoned with time. The New York-born novelist excelled at writing prose which had a resuscitating quality about it — with which he regaled some and mollified some. He belonged to a generation of writers who might seem to a modern-day reader as somewhat obsolete, but not Miller — his talent for presenting life, people and places with an unabated clarity has helped him remain relevant.
“Live like a lamb,” Flaubert said, “so that you can write like a lion.” Miller perfectly fits into the picture here. The writer of the controversial Tropics was perhaps the most outspoken writer of his time but was gentle and modest in his way of living. He was a generous man with a nature endowed with prodigality, who more often than not found himself struggling to keep his head above water. He lived most of his life on modest means. He once wrote an open letter in a magazine demanding donation of food, clothes and money from his readers in return for his original water colour paintings. A Devil in Paradise, which is the third part of Big Sur, and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is the best example of his generosity and the undue advantage a demanding and impossible Frenchman — who goes by the name of Conrad Moricand — takes of it.
He was at the avant-garde of his time. A large part of his work is autobiographical in nature and as a whole can be looked upon as an outrageous outpouring of his own personality as a man. Miller managed to turn literature into autobiography of a special sort; his work is more of an attempt to live his own life over and over again. There can be no doubt, however, in the fact that his impeccable and tremendously gifted prose would still have established him easily into the vanguard of literature, had it not been for the controversies that his work permeated.
Many creative geniuses of the world saw art not as a creation merely for public appeal but as the process of creation itself, whose value is more worthy to the creator than the audience. For Miller, writing was autobiography — a sort of therapy and a form of self-action. “We should look to the diary,” Miller writes, “not for the truth about things but as an expression of this struggle to be free of the obsession for truth.” He was a literary gangster of a sort who like D.H. Lawrence, as a writer managed to stand apart from the herd and broke the tradition of his days by adopting and establishing an unorthodox outlook which was uncommon among his contemporaries. Miller once wrote, “I do not call poets those who make verses, rhymed or unrhymed. I call that man a poet who is capable of profoundly altering the world.”
“Is art always an outrage — must it by its very nature be an outrage?” his friend and British novelist Lawrence Durrell writes somewhere pertaining to Miller. It’s hard not to get intrigued by the sense of inescapable outrage in Miller’s writing as a reader — he redounds the consciousness of his readers by rendering unforgettable experiences. Yet the critics of his age called his work “flapdoodle”, due to prevalence of obscenity in it. But there were great many literary figures like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Havelock Ellis and others who admired and acknowledged the greatness and power of Miller’s prose. Who could have thought back then, that the most controversial writer of their time — whose books were banned in his own country, and who was admired more by the Europeans than his own countrymen — would fit into the text-book categories someday in future? Today, his novels like Black Spring and others are not only a part of English literature courses in America but in India too.
The critics of his age called his work “flapdoodle”, due to prevalence of obscenity in it. But there were great many literary figures like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Havelock Ellis and others who admired and acknowledged the greatness and power of Miller’s prose.
Miller began writing when he was working for Western Union in New York. He wrote his first novel Clipped Wings during a three week vacation in 1922, which was about twelve Western Union messengers. In 1924, after quitting his job he decided to make a career in writing and devoted himself wholesomely to it. Later, following in the footsteps of his idol Walt Whitman, Miller began peddling his prose-sketches from door to door. He went on writing for ten years without any reward whatsoever — he would write two more nugatory novels during this period. In 1928, he began the life of an expatriate in Paris and the vagabondism that came along with it opened new avenues for him. During this period, Miller was writing erotica for an unknown millionaire for a dollar per page. In 1934, the 42-year-old Miller would publish his first novel Tropic of Cancer in Paris which will be an immediate success. After its appearance, he began to evolve as a writer — he no longer remained a “derivative writer” who was imitating tones, styles and shades of every other writer that he admired. Miller would later write about his transformation: “The full and joyful acceptance of the worst in oneself is the only sure way of transforming it.”
Although there were many writers and schools-of-thought which influenced Miller including Eastern ideas and Indian mystics like Vivekananda, Krishnamurti and Ramakrishna, the greatest influence on him among the writers he admired was that of Lawrence, whom he called, “The man who hung his literature on the rack of his ideas”. He was writing a critical work on Lawrence which he could never finish. He would later give an explanation for this failure, “The further I got into the book; the less I understood what I am doing.”
Durrell writes regarding Miller’s influences,“One might ascribe Miller’s intellectual pedigree partly to Bergson and Spengler, partly to Freud and partly to Hindu and Chinese religion.” Miller writes in The Books in My Life, “One of the most mysterious of all intangibles in life is what we call influences.”
He was a writer who was against pornography but for obscenity. When in an interview with George Wickes for The Paris Review he was asked about his views on obscenity, Miller said, “The obscene would be the forthright and pornography would be the roundabout. I believe in saying the truth, coming out with it cold, shockingly if necessary, not distinguishing it in other words, obscenity is a cleaning process, whereas pornography only adds to the murk. I don’t think obscenity is the most important one, and it must not be overlooked or suppressed.”
His revolutionary parlance never seems to get old-fashioned. Miller truly remains perhaps the only novelist to have written a great body of work in the first-person narrative and seldom in expository mode. If you were to judge his talent as a writer, you don’t need to look at some of his famous works — pick any of his lesser-known books and between its two covers you will find the most expressive and powerful prose of the 20th century. His final place is undoubtedly among the most important writers of the last century.