Big Sur 1961
photograph by Jonathan Williams

Time gave Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare a hideous review when it was published in l944, so I rushed down the hill to Dupont Circle in Washington, DC and bought it from the estimable bookseller, Franz Bader. I was a polite schoolboy at St. Albans School at the time. (I still am, in certain ways.)

I went to visit HM on Partington Ridge, Big Sur, California, in June, 1951, a month before I went to Black Mountain College. He was completely avuncular, funny, enthusiastic, supportive. I never knew him very well (though I still somehow managed to beat him in ping-pong on a few occasions— it was like beating Proteus!), but published his Red Notebook and enjoyed his company and his great American sass. His voice was just like that of Pete Smith in the movie short-subjects— a Brooklyn boy.

I don’t read him much these days but, now and then, look into his charming essays on people like Jean Varda, Ephraim Doner, Kenneth Patchen, Michael Frankel, Jean Giono, Beauford DeLaney. He loved books and rare individuals as much as much as any man I’ve ever known. Blessed be his name! I’m not really bothered whether he was great or whether he wasn’t great. A mensh!

In a little tract called “The Plight of the Creative Artist in the United States of America,” Henry Miller said: “I have tried more perhaps than any other living writer to tell the truth about myself... I don’t say that I have succeeded— but I have tried.” Elsewhere, he noted: “My earnings were just about sufficient to keep a goat alive.” (1998)

Just before Marc Schleifer wrote, asking for a comment on Henry Miller, I was reading the March issue of Commentary in the Monterey library. In it there is a superb piece by Paul Goodman on “Pornography, Art & Censorship.” For me, he calls all the shots, one after another.

For instance, he considers it the Supreme Court’s duty not to corrupt the youth, “to call not obscene whatever tends to joy, love, and liveliness, including the stirring of lustful impulses and thoughts.” The latter mildly obfuscated phrase means simply a desire to masturbate or copulate. So, what’s wrong with that? asks Goodman. “In our culture an artist is expected to move the reader; he is supposed to move him to tears, to laughter, to indignation, compassion, even to hatred; but he may not move him to have an erection or to mockery of public figures making spectacles of themselves. Why not?... “Dwight Eisenhower at Columbia” is a title to rouse an Aristophanes...” Why not have some decent sex in the culture, instead of all the schlock? Less J. Edgar Hoover and more Henry Miller? There is, after all, a very moving limerick on the difficulty of selling sex commercially:

the team of Tom and Louise
do an act in the nude on their knees;
they crawl down the aisle
while fucking dog-style,
and the orchestra plays Kilmer’s “Trees”

I certainly contend that the copy of Pierre Louÿs’ Aphrodite (Modern Library edition) behind all the RCA Victor red-seal albums of Toscanini’s Beethoven was more salubrious to my adolescence than the official reading imposed by secondary education. Can you imagine having to read Sir James Barrie’s The Little Minister at age 15? I had to— and Lorna Doone too. But, thank god for Time magazine. They so insulted and vilified Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) that I soon had, in addition, most of his banned books— hidden back of the Sibelius symphonies conducted by Koussevitsky. So what’s wrong with it? They helped make life endurable, sanguine, and a mite lubricious. They swung, like W.C. Fields’ breakfast: half a glass of fresh orange juice and four double-martinis. He lived a long time.

Now that I am writing this in California, on the northern edge of the Big Sur, Miller is gone from Partington Ridge— likely for good. He’s in Hamburg, Germany, writing his first play (at 71). There are, meanwhile, many rumors that American editions of the Tropics are soon forthcoming. Only very sick people will be offended by them. He likes what he lives, that’s all: sex, steak (and sex after steak), astrology (and sex after astrology)... “The more you come, the more you can,” to quote further wisdom from Paul Goodman. Do you not agree with Anatole France that chastity is the most bizarre of sexual perversions? Twenty sexual athletes could no more run the Miller One-Man Endurance Course than they could negotiate a series of the good Marquis de Sade’s tableaux and come back for more. However, a little lumpen-type Bud-drinker’s bragging never hurt anybody. Remember that Priapus liked to do it on volcanic sand beaches well before the invention of KY jelly.

I don’t have my Miller collection at hand, but the books “not for import into the British Isles and the United States of America” would include: Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring, Max & The White Phagocytes, The World of Sex, Sexus and Nexus (parts I and II of The Rosy Crucifixion), and Quiet Days in Clichy. I.e., the essential Henry Miller, excepting The Colossus of Maroussi. Anyone, exercising the slightest wit and imagination, can secure all this good stuff from friends abroad, in Europe or Japan.

The painter Ephraim Doner, grand maître of Carmel Highlands, tells this anecdote about his friend Henry Miller, who had just returned from a trip to France. The customs official in New York City asked his name. He replied, “Henry Miller.” “Henry Miller?— not the writer?” “No, Henry Miller, the plumber.” “Gee, that’s too bad. Me and Al, the guy over at the desk there, we have a whole bunch of books by a guy named Henry Miller. We keep hoping to meet him coming through here, so we can ask him to autograph them.” (1961)