Miller, Henry 1891–1980

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Miller, Henry

Henry Valentine Miller was a prolific, daring American writer and painter. Publishing more than thirty-five works of fiction and criticism during his lifetime, Miller abandoned the mundane labor of an employee of Western Union to embark on a writing career that took him to Europe, Greece, and eventually to California. Notorious for the novels—The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn—that were censored in the United States for thirty years, Miller believed that writing was an act of renewal and a celebration of life in all of its Rabelaisian aspects.

Born in New York City on December 26, 1891, Miller moved to Brooklyn when he was an infant, staying there until he quit City College of New York after only two months. Going to work at a cement company and then touring the western United States as a ranch hand, where he met the prominent anarchist Emma Goldman, Miller returned to New York and went to work in his father's tailor shop. Influenced by Goldman's ideas, Miller tried to give his father's employees control of the business. In 1917, he married the first of his five wives, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, a pianist with whom he had a daughter. In 1920 he began work as a Western Union messenger and quickly became the employment manager of the messenger department. Taking a three-week leave from Western Union, Miller wrote a book about the experience, Clipped Wings, and having had a taste of writing, decided to become a writer.

In 1923, he met June Mansfield Smith, a taxi dancer, and in 1924 he divorced his first wife and married June. He began writing full time, trying to survive on June's tips from dancing and on the proceeds of a speakeasy they opened. Miller and June went to Europe for a year in 1928, and from that point on, Miller traveled back and forth to Europe, writing, meeting writers, and surviving as he could—begging, teaching high school English, and proofreading for the Chicago Tribune.

In Paris in the early 1930s, Miller met writer Anaïs Nin, who became his mistress, and with whom he began a correspondence about art. Nin was also fascinated with June, and the two had an affair. June divorced Henry in Mexico, and he continued working on his novel, The Tropic of Cancer, which was published in France in 1934.

During this period he began working with his friend Michael Fraenkel (1896–1957); their 1,000-page correspondence was published in three volumes as Hamlet, beginning in 1939. By 1940, he had also published eight other books, including Black Spring (1936) and The Tropic of Capricorn (1939).

Just before the outbreak of World War II, Miller left France and traveled to Greece at the invitation of his friend, writer Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990). There he wrote The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), a metaphysical travel book linking travel and history.

When war broke out, Miller returned to the United States and traveled through what he thought was a land in which the works of art were all "nature's doing" (The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, 1945–1947). He settled in California at Big Sur where he would live until 1962. At Big Sur, he established an artists' colony and continued to write, producing critical works such as The Plight of the Creative Artist in America (1944) as well as a collection of reprinted watercolors, Echolalia (1945), Sexus (1949), Plexus (1953), Nexus (1960), and the essay collection Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (1962). He also painted watercolors that he exhibited all over the world.

During his period at Big Sur, Miller finally enjoyed life as an established writer with enough income to support his writing. Artists and acolytes visited Big Sur, and Miller enjoyed talking about writing, books he had read, and writers he knew. In 1944, Miller had married Janina Lepska and their marriage produced two children. He separated from Janina in 1951 and in 1953 married Eve McClure. He continued to travel, going back to France, where he visited Fran çois Rabelais's house, and Stratford-on-Avon in Great Britain, where he visited Shakespeare's home.

By the late 1950s, Miller was sufficiently renowned as a writer to be elected as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Sciences. He was asked to be a judge at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, traveling from 1960 through 1962 throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain, as well as back and forth to Big Sur and the Pacific Palisades, where he would soon take up residence. In 1961, Grove Press at long last published his previously banned book, The Tropic of Cancer.

In 1962, Miller was divorced from his fourth wife, Eve, and continued to enjoy his writing success, making taped interviews in England and France. Mainstream presses such as Grove, John Calder, and Viking were republishing his books. In 1967, he married his fifth wife, Hoki Tokuda, and in 1970, Tropic of Cancer was made into a film. He continued to paint and exhibit his work around the world. He died in 1980.

Miller's work was a jubilant exploration of all facets of life. Often narrating frankly and joyously everything from meals to sexual encounters, Miller's novels were banned in the United States for being too sexually explicit. In 1950 and 1951, the United States government challenged the importation of Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn into the United States, claiming the books violated the Tariff Act's prohibition against the importation of obscene material into the United States. In such cases, the determination of what constitutes obscenity was determined by the court itself: if in reading a book, it is deemed "obscene in its dominant effect" (United States v. Two Obscene Books, 92 F. Supp. 934). In 1950, the court found that "the dominant effect of the two respondent books is obscene. Both books are replete with long passages that are filthy and revolting and that tend to excite lustful thoughts and desires." In 1951, the books did not fare any better, this time exciting the court to the following comment: "It is sufficient to say, however, that the many obscene passages in the books have such evil stench that to include them here in footnotes would make this opinion pornographic. For example, there are several passages where the female sexual organ and its function are described and referred to in such detailed vulgar language as to create nausea in the reader" (United States v. Two Obscene Books, 99 F. Supp. 760).

see also Nin, Anaïs.


Dearborn, Mary. 1991. The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ferguson, Robert. 1993. Henry Miller: A Life. New York: Norton.

Miller, Henry. 1964. Henry Miller on Writing. New York: New Directions.

Miller, Henry. 1987. The Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove Press.

Miller, Henry. 1987. The Tropic of Capricorn. New York: Grove Press.

United States v. Two Obscene Books, 99 F. Supp. 760 (1950).

                                                  Judith Roof

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Miller, Henry 1891–1980

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