Henry Miller and NEXUS, the American Author Reconsidered
Henry Miller is the missing link to a holistic understanding of the American literary tradition, argues Dr. James M. Decker, author of Henry Miller: New Perspectives and mastermind behind Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal.
“Once you have given up the ghost, everything falls into place with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos,” opens Henry Miller’s third book, The Tropic of Capricorn (1939). Anyone who has ever really hit bottom, and survived, knows the truth and wisdom packed into that sentence. From such a place there can no longer be any fear: fear of being misunderstood, fear of rejection, reprisal, censorship, failure, or even death.
Although he never regretted it, surviving in Paris during the Great Depression of the 1930’s had proven a lot more harrowing than even the stalwart Brooklyn boy had predicted it to be. Sometimes homeless, always hungry, weeping on park benches, clutching his empty belly, which often went three, four, or even five days without a morsel of food, he was a desperate man, as he might say, “in every sense of the word.”
And when at last he hit rock bottom, when his belly was screaming and he had bummed his last dime – clarity.
Having crossed that threshold – or given up the ghost – Miller was then free to abandon all pretense and, as he saw it, determined to write “all that is not contained in books.” He wrote plainly and graphically about sex, he walked the labyrinths of love, philosophy, and art, telling the world, “I had no more need of God than he had of me, and if there were one, I often told myself, I would meet him calmly and spit in his face.”
That kind of talk, throughout what Puritans still refer to as Christendom, could get you banned, ostracized, persecuted, and – ultimately and worst of all – overlooked.
“I am thinking that in the age to come I shall not be overlooked. Then my history will become important and the scar which I leave upon the face of the world will have significance. I can not forget that I am making history… Henry Miller, Black Spring, ca. 1936.
Once Miller found that voice there was no stopping him, and his outpouring of words continued in a cataract of productivity that lasted until the day he died.
Books penned by Henry Miller as far back as the 1930s were banned in the United States, England, and elsewhere, ostensibly for the graphic sex in some, but also because of what the Citizens for Decent Literature called, “being opposed to the basic Judeo-Christian morality of the nation.” Miller wrote thirty-two books, including literary criticism, novels, many books of essays, memoirs, travelogues, collected letters, and even a play. He influenced the Beats, the Surrealists, and all the avant-garde who came after, and single-handedly created the genre we now call creative nonfiction. Although the graphic sex for which he was condemned appeared in only a handful of his works, in many instances, all that was needed to evoke the censor’s ire was to find the name Henry Miller on the cover.
The sixty-two court cases leading to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that eventually freed his works for publication also gave us the freedom we have today to write as we please. Court decisions freeing Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Joyce’s Ulysses were only specific to the release from censorship of those individual titles. Miller was an old man, in his seventies, when the ban on his work was lifted. Because of that Miller was virtually penniless for most of his life, even though millions had read and loved his work.
Miller is gone now. He passed in 1980 at the age of eighty-eight. At the time of his death he was famous the world over for very right and very wrong reasons. And as memories are short, and the issue of censorship resolved, for the time being at least, the controversies in which he was embroiled have faded.
And since then, post sexual-revolution gender politics, and an upsurge in conservative religious orthodoxy, has set his legacy adrift before it could be truly cemented. Hence, the window he opened on the world exists in a room whose door got locked, its key misplaced, and his vast body of work, with its myriad of intricacy, argument, and happenstance, remains unclaimed, unexamined, and in real danger of realizing his greatest fear, that of being overlooked.
Readers, artists, and lovers of the arts, particularly the written word, have stood up many times over the millennia to resuscitate the works of worthy authors and artists.
It is said that T.S. Eliot resuscitated the works of John Donne; that without Poggio Bracciolini digging around in the basement of a German monastery in the early 15th century where he found the rotting pages of a poem by a 1st century poet named Lucretius, we would not have had the prescient, On The Nature Of Things; that without Thomas Johnson reinstating the original punctuation to Emily Dickinson’s poems in the 1950s, a century after they were written, the revolution of form and content in poetry she started would not have taken place. It took Alice Walker to rediscover the work of Zora Neale Hurston of the Harlem Renaissance, and Felix Mendelssohn painstakingly restored the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. August Derleth kept the work of H.P. Lovecraft alive until the right audience came along to appreciate it. Think of all that could have been lost. Think of all that has been lost.
Now enter a humble, soft-spoken PhD from, of all places, Illinois Central College, the indispensable home to 13,000 students from the Midwestern United States.
James M. Decker is a tall quiet man who looks like he could be the great-grandson of Ray Bolger or Woody Guthrie. He moves about his classroom handing out reading assignments, pausing to answer a question, pointing out the tips of literary icebergs to students with big hair, wearing sports jerseys, loud tee shirts, and sagging blue jeans, a look I would call “post-cool.”
No matter. His quiet, serious approach to educating has an unmistakably sincere feel to it, and that sincerity is what drives students, many of whom don’t even take his classes, to seek him out during off hours in the The Studio, ICC’s writing center, in the English Department for guidance and help with thesis projects, form and structure issues, or simply in navigating the tricky labyrinths of higher education.
In other words, he is an unlikely and unassuming champion.
None of his students and very few of his peers even know that James M. Decker is the co-founder, publisher, and editor of Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, now in its Eleventh Volume.
And suddenly, Henry Miller’s “age to come” has finally arrived.
“They are writing a void around him,” Decker insists, “which is ridiculous when you look at who cites Miller as a major influence.”
So Decker did what so many courageous supporters of the arts have done before him – he took matters into his own hands.
Decker had been knocking around the idea of a Henry Miller Journal as far back as graduate school, but it wasn’t until he attended a Lawrence Durrell Conference in Ottawa, Canada, in 2002, that the idea at last took root. It was there at a gathering of Miller enthusiasts, most notably Miller bibliographer Roger Jackson, Miller biographer Karl Orend, and others, that the subject of doing a journal on Miller was revived. “I’m not sure if Roger broached the subject or I did, but he was very enthusiastic. He would handle the layout and look of it, and I would handle finding people to write for it and edit it.” Once their little group adjourned, Jackson started contacting other Miller collectors, and Decker set about “showing the scholarly community that it’s okay to write about Miller, that there’s a place you can send your article to. That we’re all ears on all things Miller.” Several Miller enthusiasts kicked in five hundred dollars each, and in 2004, Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal was born.
Miller provides a bridge between the works of Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau, and those of later writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. American literature only fails to appear possessed of a clear lineage if the key figure of Miller is ignored.
Miller and the Critics
As an educator, Decker knows that “the number one place where reputations are made is in the literary anthologies. Students come back to me time and again and tell me that something they read for me by an Edith Wharton, or a Jack London, years later inspired them to read a writer’s entire catalogue. That’s how writers are passed along. Miller is not in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Books are coming out even today about the Modern American Novel or the Contemporary American Novel, and Miller isn’t mentioned at all, yet the writers he influenced – Pynchon, Mailer, Kerouac, Ginsberg, to name a few – are all there.”
Poet and educator Rose Solari, author of A Secret Woman and The Last Girl, offers this analysis: “The scholarly mind looks for pattern recognition, that’s why the unique individual doesn’t fit well in the system of scholarship. We are hard-wired to look for and accept repetition, it is deeply engrained; the first person who breaks a pattern goes unnoticed until a new pattern forms and their work is widely imitated.” Some, like Miller, she suggests, defy imitation.
Decker’s explanation is more socio-political. “Miller had rotten luck. As far as The Academy is concerned, his moments were possibly the worst in terms of publicizing his work.” When Miller’s stuff was first being seriously considered in the United States, Decker continues, “American literary theory was under the hold of something called ‘The New Criticism,’ which is all about very tight, very regulated prose. That hurt him in the censorship trials; it was harder to find advocates for him because he wasn’t using the style that was preferred at the time. Now, that’s not true overseas. In France, in Japan, for instance, people talk of his work, but the Anglo-American critics do not.” Then came the double whammy. “When Miller’s type of prose did become popular, that’s when Kate Millett and the Second Wave Feminists came in, and Miller was someone they only wanted to talk about in the pejorative sense. They overemphasized one facet of his work and ignored the rest. As a result, Miller lost the traction that had started to build because of earlier studies by William A. Gordon and Ihab Hassan. He then became radioactive to non-feminist mainstream criticism.”
In a May, 1969, letter to Kate Millett, reprinted in Nexus Volume 4 (2007), Miller wrote, “Maybe it’s simply a frightful lack of humor on your part which irritates me…If I could sum up what I mean in a few words it would be: I think you have missed the boat…Such writing may earn you another degree but I hardly think it will enhance the reader’s understanding of my work.” Ouch.
Miller and the Academy
Decker speaks of what he calls, “The Academy,” or American Academia, the way a zookeeper might refer to a wild and highly dangerous animal, with great respect for its insular nature and its ability to protect itself. But Decker’s focus looks beyond traditional narrow definitions.
“I don’t care if you’re in The Academy, if you are out of The Academy, if your interest is biography, if your interest is lesbian feminist readings of Miller. I don’t care. We welcome you, and we will put you in our pages if it meets obvious editorial standards, and we will send them off to certain readers to make sure that they do.”
Decker’s guiding philosophy with Nexus is to avoid the heavy handedness one might find elsewhere. “A lot of journals have very specific biases on how they want you to interpret or read an author’s works. I felt that if we really wanted to stir the pot on Miller, particularly since not much had been done, we can’t close our eyes to opinions that disagree with ours.”
This open approach to exploring Miller and his work leaves Decker’s writers free to plum Miller’s seemingly fathomless literary depths.
For example, in Nexus Volume 7 (2010), Douglas Matus, in his essay Teach as You Like and Die Happy: Henry Miller as High School Curriculum, suggests that, “Miller provides a bridge between the works of Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau, and those of later writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. American literature only fails to appear possessed of a clear lineage if the key figure of Miller is ignored.” Matus insists that, “teenage students find it difficult to connect to writing that feels personally remote. Miller’s writing is so visceral, so persistently fresh and modern, that he serves as the ideal bridge between the literature of the 19th century and the concerns of today’s youth.”
As far as having any qualms regarding the exposure of young minds to Miller’s more audacious material is concerned, Matus isn’t having any of it. One need only “watch the reactions of a group of parents when their children are assigned ‘objectionable’ literature,” to learn a valuable lesson about our contemporary intellectual society, he suggests. “It does not matter that they allow their daughters to wear clothing that would make Miller’s Parisian whores blush, or that their sons listen to music awash in obscenity. To see the word ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’ on the printed page is enough to send them into hysterics.” His advice is to confront the accusation of obscenity head on. Bawdy humor, and the juxtaposition of the erotic and the holy, has a well-established place in literature, no matter how contemporary standards fluctuate. So be an adult, show an adult example, and get over it. But these incongruities in public perception should serve as a warning: These freedoms are vulnerable, at every level.
While it is rare to find a discussion of high school students’ tastes in scholarly journals, it is even more rare to find scholars arguing with each other in a single volume. Decker, however, encourages it. He explains, “We don’t care if you read one article, and then you read a second article and that second article contradicts the first one, because that’s how an author’s reputation gets cemented. Miller’s not a one trick pony, and he is complex and dynamic enough to support many competing interpretations.”
Look at two articles that appear back to back in Volume 6 (2009). Richard Kostelanetz in his piece, Henry Miller Decades Later, waltzes through some academic Freudian/Jungian interpretations of what makes an artist, then concludes that loving Miller’s work is a young person’s phase. “I learned from Miller much that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else, initially about the writing of personal essays and perusing arts in addition to writing,” he says, and recognizes how that early influence set him on a path of artistic and personal self-fulfillment. Although his point is well taken, I would encourage Kostelanetz to consider that those types of revelations might come to anyone at any age.
Following right behind Kostelanetz, however, is Maria Bloshteyn’s Writing the Underground, where, after a whirlwind eight-page synopsis of Dostoevsky’s classic, Notes from Underground, she takes her time sussing out Miller’s fictional narrator thusly: “It is not surprising then that the Henry Miller persona, living in an ultra-civilized society whose horrific twentieth-century present is the Underground Man’s nightmarish future, should open ‘his’ notes where Notes from Underground end…he is forced to take his underground where no one can see it – into his mind…Miller’s underground man becomes a hero for our times, and the underground becomes one of the few places where personal survival and artistic creation is possible.” In other words, Bloshteyn claims that Miller created a boilerplate for the angst-riddled, alienated city dweller that would populate fiction for the next half-century and beyond. Hardly the type of writing one would outgrow after high school.
The Real Henry Miller is a man we are only now, thanks to Decker, being introduced to. This is the homeless intellectual, the man who abandoned everything to find his voice and use it come what may.
Plowing the Field
“One of the things I’m proud about with Nexus,” says Decker, “is that the writers have really plowed the field.” In partnership with Miller collector Roger Jackson, each volume begins with a previously unpublished work by Miller himself. And there’s plenty. Letters? Miller wrote thousands, as well as essays, and collaborative experiments with some of his contemporaries which never found their way into the many collections published during and after Miller’s lifetime. The first-time publication of these makes each edition of Nexus an anticipated event for Miller scholars and his devoted readers hungry for something new.
The best of these so far, in my opinion, is The New Instinctivism (A Duet in Creative Violence), Nexus Volume 4 (2007), penned by Miller in collaboration with life-long friend Alfred Perlès in 1931, very early in Miller’s emergence as a great artist. Thought to have been “lost to posterity,” (HM Letters to Emil, New Directions, 1989) Nexus offers this “most important of these documents to date.”
Edited and annotated by Karl Orend, The New Instinctivism is a surrealist-dadaist-discordian farce, twenty-four pages long, and followed by Orend’s notes, which take another fourteen pages, with nary an Ibid among them. These notes are an entertaining departure from the normally dry and uninteresting academic asides you find in most journals and biographies, and are representative of what you find after each and every piece throughout the Nexus series. Comprised of letters, histories, anecdotal information, and historical background, the notes supporting each piece are a worthy addendum to the series at large, and will, in the future, be an invaluable resource for those writers, biographers, and Miller explorers who will inevitably follow.
Decker knows that, by now, the Nexus series has taken such a huge step forward in Miller criticism that any and all serious work on the author must inevitably come through the Nexus series to be viable. “Each author is responsible for his or her notes. I edit them when they come in,” says Decker, “sometimes Roger, sometimes Karl. Karl loves his notes.” In some cases Decker, and his collaborators will provide extra notes to an author’s efforts lest any stone be left unturned.
As far as I can tell the Nexus series breaks down into seven fundamental categories:
The Unpublished Miller
Mentioned above, these contain gems that make the series worth it to Miller fans all by themselves.
The Paris Miller of the 1930’s
There are those, like Orend, who are dedicated to separating the factual Miller from the fictional one. These efforts are indispensable in realizing the creativity in his work and his giant contribution to his art. Only after we have defused the personal pronoun “I” in Miller’s novels, can we look at them as works of fiction apart from the man who wrote them. For some, The Paris Miller – the bold, quixotic, sexual adventurer and philosophic flaneur or wandering scholar – is the only Miller who matters.
Henry Miller, the Social Critic
Several writers in the Nexus series jump through hoops to prove Miller’s anarchism. Although their arguments are compelling and extremely informative, I would argue that Miller’s affection for anarchist writing was his way of seeking the kind of ideas that would enable him to liberate his own thinking, and therefore his own writing. Anarchy is a tricky concept. Even the Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a devil of a time giving a definition of it. Sympathy for an idea or philosophy does not an anarchist make. I would call him, instead, a Discordian. Perhaps a new word should be invented for Miller’s unique form of disengagement politics – Anacordian perhaps?
Henry Miller, the Philosopher
In Henry Miller and Jean Francois Lyotard: The Aesthetics of The Inhuman, Volume 5 (2008), Eric D. Lehman observes, “Scholars are just beginning to discover the usefulness of applying ‘postmodern’ philosophy to understanding Miller’s work.” Lehman uses a reading of the French philosopher Lyotard to make the point that “If postmodern thought questions, blurs, or even collapses the distinction between art and life, as it questions, blurs, or collapses so much of our traditional thinking, then, for better or worse, Miller is a postmodernist.” Lehman then brings it home with two snippets from Tropic of Cancer; “…the task that the artist implicitly sets himself is to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own…then it is that I run with joy to the great and imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me…he who would create order, he who would sow strife and discord, because he is imbued with will, such a man must go again and again to the stake or the gibbet. I see behind the nobility of his gestures there lurks the spectre of the ridiculousness of it all – that he is not only sublime, but absurd.”
Here then, is where the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze link hands with Nietzsche and Henry Miller, when Miller goes on to conclude, “Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but I see now that it was meant to destroy me. Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles. I have nothing to do with the creaking machine of humanity…Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song.”
Because of Lehman’s work, and others in the Nexus series, perhaps now, at last, Miller’s Inhumans can take their rightful place, between the Lost Generation and the Beats, where they belong.
Henry Miller, the Writer
Decker’s book on Miller, Henry Miller and Narrative Form, explores Miller’s unique usage of time, what Miller himself called Spiral Form. Says Decker, “By filtering memories, dreams, and fantasies through an anecdotal matrix, Miller allows his narratives to blur categories of the past, present, and future, enabling him to depict a persona that stands both in and apart from the historical continuum. Such a framework lets Miller fuse real events and fabrications without sacrificing the ‘truthfulness’ of his representations…Because his narratives deny strict chronology, Miller may rearrange the incidents of his life in a pattern that seeks not photographic realism, but psychological realism.”
This accounts for the very subliminal feeling in most, if not all, of Miller’s work, that what you are experiencing is in the here and now. This sense of immediacy is the deliberate use of Miller’s own Spiral Form. I would like to think that someday, entire academic creative writing curricula will be put forth to explore this exciting, and heretofore unexplored genre. You can read more on this fascinating writing style, of course, in Nexus Volume 1 (2004), Spiral Form and Henry Miller’s Altered Ethics: Tropic of Capricorn Revisited, by Kenneth Womack, and D.A. Pratt’s On Reading Henry Miller’s World of Sex, Nexus Volume 5 (2008).
The Mature Miller
Here we meet the expatriate whose publishers, wanting a capitulating screed on the repatriation of the estranged artist, got instead The Air Conditioned Nightmare and its sequel, Remember to Remember; the penetrating, almost whimsical Miller who wrote The Wisdom of the Heart; the older mature Miller, living in Big Sur high up on Partington Ridge, trying to shoo away beatniks and hippies while writing Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch; the wizened veteran who took a look back at those early writings in the comprehensive retelling of Capricorn in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. This is a Miller I find myself returning to again and again. Here we find a man who has at last taken a deep breath, and is no longer attempting to get it all said with each sentence in each book.
The Real Henry Miller
“Miller was a master at caricature,” observes Decker. “He actually wrote about that later in life. He said, ‘I was writing about the scoundrel in myself.’ And so yes, the blurring of the line between the ‘scoundrel’ and the more complete Henry Miller, is one that hasn’t been challenged enough.” In Nexus, writers like Orend, Eric D. Lehman, J. Gerald Kennedy, Mark SaFranko, and others are doing just that. But it is clearly Karl Orend who is leading the charge. With a least one, often two or more pieces in several volumes, what emerges from Orend’s investigations is a far different creature than the rogue, anarchistic discordian we meet in The Tropics and The Rosy Crucifixion, and other works. Orend has, instead, discovered a three-dimensional figure, a man steeped in literature, multi-lingual, full of erudition, courage, and complexity.
The Real Henry Miller will charm and beguile you, and his tragic story will break your heart. Columnist Wambly Bald, part of the Miller circle in those early years in Paris (the Van Norden character in Tropic of Cancer), thought that Miller in person reminded him of Bert Lahr, who was famous for his role as The Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. Miller had seen Lahr on the vaudeville stage many times in New York. Bald remembered that, like Lahr, Miller was soft-spoken and never talked openly about his work. There was nothing about him, Bald says, to suggest he had great talent; he rarely stood out in a crowd, hiding behind a mask of easy affability and charm. Nin in her diaries describes Henry in an apron, fastidiously keeping house.
In Nexus the false impressions left over from his controversial past are exposed and one by one laid to rest
For this reader, one of the most compelling aspects of the Nexus series is The Real Henry Miller. In all the years since he began his career, The Real Henry Miller is a man we are only now, thanks to Decker, being introduced to. This is the homeless intellectual, the man who abandoned everything to find his voice and use it come what may. In Nexus, the false impressions left over from his controversial past are exposed and one by one laid to rest. What remains is the full rich life of a self-educated man who wrote what he pleased. It is a story of courage, suffering, and transcendence, “in every sense of the word.”
The most chilling of all the articles depicting The Real Henry Miller, is Orend’s The Observations Concerning His Morality and Probity Are Favorable: Henry Miller Glimpsed by the French Secret Service, Nexus Volume 4 (2007). Orend has unearthed a report by spies from the French Secret Service keeping an eye on intellectuals in pre-Nazi-occupation France, and how Miller’s under the radar lifestyle may have saved his life.
Problems posed in earlier editions of Nexus are often resolved in later ones. In Volume 3 (2006,) Decker himself makes a cameo appearance in the journal, his only to date, investigating what happened to Miller’s second wife June, who is the subject of so many of his books. “There was a lot of speculation and interest in finding out what happened to June.” When did she die? Where was she buried and what happened to her after their marriage dissolved? So, Decker went to work, even hiring a private detective when he thought he was getting close. But the trail went cold. “So I went ahead and published my article and said ‘if anyone knows anything let me know, and if there’s no headstone, I’ll pay for one.’” That’s a sweet offer from a man living on a community college professor’s salary. “Years went by, until someone posted anonymously on a Miller blog called The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company.” June Mansfield/Miller died June E. Corbett, Feb. 1, 1979 at the age of seventy-seven, and is buried in Valley View Cemetery in Cottonwood, Arizona. The story is published in Nexus Volume Seven (2010).
Problems posed in earlier editions of Nexus are often resolved in later ones.
Richard Galen Osborne, or the Filmore character from Cancer, is another case in point. In Nexus Volume 5, (2008), Orend mentions that “Richard Galen Osborn died unknown and forgotten. No Miller scholar has even ever seen a photograph of him or knows where he is buried or when he died.” Osborne’s story is told, at last, in Volume 8 (2011).
While Decker and I are on the subject of scholarship’s capacity to build upon its own investigations, he hands me a copy of Volume 8 and points to the photo on the cover. Henry is sitting at a dinner table, with friends. A very young woman has joined him, clearly for the purpose of having her picture taken with the famous writer. “Who is she?” Decker wants to know, certain that sooner or later, an old photograph will turn up in someone’s attic, or a name will drop from someone’s memory, and yet another Miller mystery will be solved, and another puzzle piece in the ongoing reconstruction of this fascinating man’s life, will make the picture richer, broader, larger.
On a personal level, I have been an ardent reader of Henry Miller for more than thirty years. Before the publication of Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, the only people with whom I could discuss his work were those to whom I had given his books. Now, we previously isolated and devoted readers have a community of our own at last.
Joan Baez once said of Bob Dylan that, “There’s some people who’d say, you know, not interested. But if you are interested, he goes way, way deep.”
In that way, for people to whom Miller goes “way, way deep,” the inclination is to regard him as a friend, more than a name beneath the title of a book. He becomes the wild and wise old uncle you never had, someone to help guide you through life’s traumatic changes, someone who gives you permission to be yourself. Perhaps it’s this quality that makes his readers simply want to call him Henry.