Fame is a fleeting, funny thing. Consider the case of Henry Miller, hailed for years as the world’s dirtiest writer thanks to books that depicted acts of human getting-together whose scenarios and language would earn a PG–13 rating today. Miller was renowned, and for a time he was even wealthy, a welcome change from the poverty he had endured for much of his early career. Writes James Campbell in the Times Literary Supplement, “Miller’s name would be less famous than it is if he had succumbed to publishers’ pleas and toned down his writing.” He didn’t, and he continued to produce “dirty books” over a long career that is all but forgotten today, a little more than 36 years after Miller’s death.
Today marks the end of Cancer’s rule over the zodiac, a fitting time to remember Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer was the most famous of his many books. Tropic was banned until, 55 years ago, Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset took on the post office and the police and made the book accessible—and thus less dangerous, and thus, perhaps, a touch less interesting, marking the beginning of Miller’s decline.
Will anyone remember the work of potboiler novelist Dan Brown in a comparable span of time? Only the flying fickle finger of fate knows. For the moment, he’s made the news in Europe by donating the rough equivalent of $330,000 to the Ritman Library, an Amsterdam-based repository of esoterica. The gift will be used to help digitize the library’s holdings, making it available for mystics in the making around the world.
No such largess would seem to be possible from the current coffer of Helen DeWitt, the preternaturally gifted author whose novel The Last Samurai burst onto the scene in 2000. (We praised the book as a “witty, wacky, and endlessly erudite debut.”) Fame and fate being what they are, and DeWitt being a classicist steeped in the ancient tragedies, it is an unfortunate but by no means uncanny fact that this impressively, even formidably talented writer should not have attained the large audience she deserved, even as the lesser likes of Dan Brown and Donna Tartt went on to earn wealth. DeWitt now has a second chance, now that New Directions has reissued the novel in paperback. Read more about her in Christian Lorentzen’s fine profile in the new number of Vulture.
Sic transit gloria mundi… As an editor, Judy Feiffer helped bring two best-selling books into print, one, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, now canonical, the other, Christine Crawford’s Mommie Dearest, now best remembered for the Faye Dunaway vehicle it inspired. Feiffer passed away on June 27. Historian William McNeill died last week at the impressive age of 98, having written such memorable books as The Rise of the West and Plagues and Peoples. And in Britain, Sally Beauman passed away on July 7, having attained repute and disrepute for her steamy novel Destiny, which might have showed Henry Miller a thing or two about how dirty literary books are to be written.
Dirty books, clean books, books of every description fill the Library of Congress in the millions. The venerable institution, as old as the nation itself, was leaderless for months thanks to the predilections of a certain political faction for blocking presidential nominations to key federal offices. Embarrassed by the public disclosure of this fact, the Senate majority leader finally allowed for a vote, and last week Carla Hayden was confirmed as Librarian of Congress, the first woman and the first African American to hold the post.Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.