A refreshing biography of Henry Miller (1891–1980) that plunges into his work and spares readers some tedious early detail.
California-based educator and documentary filmmaker Hoyle catches up with Miller in 1939, when he was wrapping up his years of bohemian living in Paris, facing the prospect of German invasion and coming war. The social and moral collapses he witnessed about him are vividly captured in the work he produced during the 1930s, published by Jack Kahane through his Obelisk Press in Paris. These included Miller’s signature works celebrating the “artist of life,” such as Tropic of Cancer, published in 1934, which gave him notoriety in Europe but was banned in England and the United States for alleged obscenity until the early 1960s. Indeed, at this juncture, Miller was frustrated by the inability to publish his work in America. As impecunious as when he arrived in Paris, he was fatalistic about his future writing career: “I lack the courage for further hardships.” Moreover, his important love and benefactress, Anaïs Nin, was not going to leave her husband and make an idyllic life with Miller, and his interludes in Corfu and to New York meant an imminent break with her. Hoyle quotes extensively from Miller’s prodigious correspondence. Dismayed by the ugly acquisitiveness of New York, Miller nonetheless reconnected with his troubled family in Brooklyn, writing about this period as the reconciliation of the prodigal son. Moving to California, and being offered, in 1944, a cheap cabin to use in Big Sur, a region of startling natural beauty, radically altered Miller’s sense of his American identity and destiny as a writer. Here he would embark on his deeply autobiographical account of his upbringing, The Rosy Crucifixion, and forge important new relationships that would nourish his work and solidify his literary legacy as more than a “lowly pornographer.”
Despite distracting tense changes, Hoyle offers generous interpretations of Miller’s oeuvre.