A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, 1932-1953, ed. Gunther Stuhlmann. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.)

Book review by Rob Couteau




Published in:
Arete: Forum For Thought,
Aug. / Sep.
1988 (CA: San Diego)

Revered as a hero by his fans and disregarded as an egoistic scoundrel by his critics, Henry Miller lingers on in American literature as a presence for which no common consensus seems to exist. As with certain other artists who provoke a wide range of opinion, Miller symbolized a force or personified a notion extending beyond his own identity or creation. He belonged to a tradition in literature that was idea- or content oriented rather than one that was self-consciously poetic or merely well crafted. In style and in vision, Miller was unabashedly rapturous, entranced, ecstatic.

Writing in the first person, he drew from personal experience to portray dramas that, when successful, addressed the larger issues of our time: mystical experience and the question of God; the contrast of the sacred and the profane and of meaning and meaninglessness (the latter quality often portrayed in scenes of exaggerated sexuality, for which he was later labeled a pornographer); the liberating role of the artist; the dehumanizing politics of the modern age; the spiritual value of marginal characters and of social misfits (many of them the “homeless” of his time); and meditations on the world-to-come. Miller was a philosopher in the original (and not in the modern) sense: one who lives his philosophy and whose philosophy emerges from the reality called life.

It’s perhaps this philosophical view that stands at the center of a fierce difference of opinion on the author. To many “men of letters,” Miller’s worldview is unpalatable. Like fellow iconoclast Marcel Duchamp, he offended the traditionalists and the avant-garde (a nifty accomplishment) by refusing to accept a politically correct path, always preferring to go his own way.

Speaking of his own place in literature, Frank Harris (a client of the senior Miller’s tailor shop) once wrote:

There are two main traditions of English writing: the one of perfect liberty, that of Chaucer and Shakespeare, completely outspoken, with a certain liking for lascivious details and witty smut, a man’s speech; the other emasculated more and more by Puritanism and since the French Revolution, gelded to the tamest propriety; for that upheaval brought the illiterate middle class to power and insured the domination of girl readers. Under Victoria, English prose literally became half childish, as in stories of “Little Mary,” or at least provincial, as anyone may see who comes to consider the influence of Dickens, Thackeray and Reade in the world with the influence of Balzac, Flaubert and Zola.

All my life I have rebelled against this old maid’s canon of deportment, and my revolt has grown stronger with advancing years….

Although he epitomizes many other things as well, Miller clearly belongs to this tradition of “perfect liberty.”

In contrast to Miller’s liberation, Anaïs Nin pursued a style that approached the darker issues only to skirt about them with an abstract, denatured, Apollonian resolve. To integrate the “instincts” (as she liked to call them) into consciousness became a lifelong pursuit; one in which she was assisted by none other than Henry Miller.

In examining Miller’s correspondence with his fellow writer, patron, and lover, we are privy to previously unpublished disclosures of intimacy and compassion that occasionally border on the electric. When the letters are somewhat less electric, however, they often fail to elicit the interest of the general reader or even that of the Miller- or Nin aficionado.

It’s possible that the fault lies with editor Gunther Stuhlmann, who chose to exclude passages of general interest, such as (in his own words): “lengthy discussions of Dostoyevsky, Proust, Joyce, D.H. Lawrence; detailed critiques of one another’s work-in-progress; ruminations on films, books, and so on, often encased in letters of twenty or more typed pages.” Although one can understand the problem concerning the limitations of space, the decision to “eliminate material peripheral to the personal story” leaves the literary palate teased yet unsatiated.

By focusing on the personal concerns and events of their lives, the book fails to pay tribute to the larger issues that propelled Miller to greatness and that profoundly concerned each author. Perhaps, there was a fear that Miller’s superior grasp of such issues and his ability to more imaginatively respond to them would have severely overshadowed Nin’s generally less interesting contributions. Heralded by the emerging Women’s Movement and revered by a generation of introspective journal scribblers, her literary importance remains an inflated one, while Miller still awaits his proper canonization in modern literature.

One hopes that such juicier ruminations on literature, film, and art will one day see the “light of print” and help to place each author in better perspective. Meanwhile, A Literate Passion occasionally sparks, but never quite ignites, the literary passions of the reader.


 fine art

Updated: 2 August 2011 | All text Copyright © 2011 | Rob Couteau |
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