"I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive."- Henry Miller. Henry Valentine Miller is a colorful and influential figure whose literature greatly influenced American artistic culture and whose very life can serve as an exemplar of the Big Sur culture. He is an eccentric novelist whose work has sometimes been deemed pornography. His extremely controversial novel, Tropic of Cancer, is the most litigated work of literature of all time, and did much to challenge conventional ideas about sex in literature. Henry Miller as a person can only be described as living the characteristic Big Sur lifestyle.
Henry Miller was born on December 26th, 1891. A New Yorker for the first 20 years of his life, he was born in Yorkville, Manhattan but soon moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While there he married his first wife, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, in 1917. In Brooklyn he was a vigorous supporter of the socialist party headed by his idol, an African American socialist, Hubert Harrison. This early socialism greatly influenced his ideology and creed for the rest of his life, and led to his anti-materialist anti-capitalist lifestyle. After meeting June Smith in 1923 he quickly left his first wife for this new young beauty. On June 24th, 1924 they were married. He shows from an early age a fascination with women and a heart quick to fall in love, although his relationships are fleeting. During his tenure in New York, he spent time in Paris in 1928 and 1929 with his new wife. This visit to Paris prefaced his long stay there in the 1930's where he will write Tropic of Cancer, among other novels (Ferguson).
Henry Miller went to live in Paris in 1930 and lived there until WWII broke out in 1939. This whole time he was essentially broke and financed by his French lover Anais Nin and a friend Hugh Guiler. Anais was the one who financed the publishing of Tropic of Cancer, the novel that would end up challenging and eventually shifting the American outlook on sex in literature. His being catered by Anais Nin in the 1930's shows Henry's continued trend of dependence on women. His house, also paid for by Anais Nin and Hugh Guiler, was the Villa Seurat and it frequently entertained many French authors. In this time Henry was greatly influenced by Surrealism. His interactions with the French Surrealists altered his mindset and literature permanently. This is where his classic use of suggestion in literature and his appreciation of little things arise from. Miller must have been an interesting contrast to the French surrealist movement with his tendency towards blatancy as opposed to their surrealism (Ferguson).
Henry Miller's next stop would be in beautiful Big Sur, California in 1940. Throughout this period his work was all banned in the US, while still finding ways to seep into artist circles across the nation. In this period he continued to write novels challenging conventional outlooks on sex such as Sextet, a Devil in Paradise, and the World of Sex among others. While being banned in the US, his smuggled in work still had a large and lasting impact on Beat Generation literature. He loved Big Sur for its beauty and community and enjoyed leisure activities such as painting, playing piano, and of course writing. In 1968, while living in Big Sur, Henry Miller refused to pay taxes in protest of the Vietnam War with his signing of the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest." His signing of this anti-war tax protest shows Miller's classic Big Sur peace loving nature and defiance of the American Government, which is not surprising considering his socialist past (Ferguson).
Henry Miller is an interesting figure who should be paid more attention to. He lived his whole life without ever having much money and yet considered himself the happiest man alive. This is due to him living unattached to material things (Shifreen). Henry Miller, while being accused of Satanism for his work, seems to live a life of divine purity in the eyes of Jesus Christ, who believed in anti-materialism as well as in religions such as Buddhism who teach that same principle. He saw both decay and growth as mutually beautiful. This outlook in itself is beautiful and almost unfathomable for the common man. Unlike many authors who our society venerates, he lived a long and happy life until the day he died. Our society thrives on tragedy, tragic novels with tragic author. This is one of the reasons why Henry Miller has been essentially forgotten by society and by established education, because he presents a far too happy, free lifestyle that is uninteresting to the American People. (Orwell)
Henry Miller talks so explicitly and grotesquely about sex, that a quotation would be offensive and is not necessary (Miller). "He feels that sex is everywhere so it cannot be hidden or dismissed. Sex is only natural. Henry Miller treats sex for its own sake; neither apologizes nor glorifies its expression" (Shifreen 7). With this point of view his work is not pornographic; it's just honest (Toren). Henry Miller does not defy conventional attitudes on sex, in fact, he shares them. He is a male chauvinist in sexual situations and tends to view women with superiority and as articles for sexual exploitation. This seems to be a common attitude of men in American society. The beauty of his novels comes with his willingness to talk about these attitudes which educate the world about their existence (Orwell).
Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller's most famous novel. It is also the most litigated piece of literature of all time (Ferguson). It talks about Henry's time in Paris at the Villa Seurat and his endeavors with many women such as Faula, Lucille and Mona. It talks very explicitly, maybe even grotesquely, about his sexual exploits (Miller). This novel led to hundreds of obscenity trials throughout the US, among other nations, challenging the ability of the government to censure human expression. This famous novel also had a huge impact on Beat Generation Literature, and eventually the hippie movement. It especially impacted their outlook on sex (Toren).
Tropic of Cancer was first published in the US in 1961, 27 years after its first publication in Paris in 1934. This immediately led to a series of obscenity trials. Certain states including New York and Florida determined that it was obscene and that it could not be distributed or brought into their states (Attorney). A supreme court Writ of Certiorari was granted and the United States Supreme Court officially considered it literature in 1964 (Grove). The eventual declaration of Tropic of Cancer to be legal literature in 1964 was a landmark event that widened the artist's ability to discuss and express sex in the United States (Toren).
In New York City in 1962 a case called Attorney General V. A Book Named "Tropic of Cancer" considered the novel to be obscene. It said that the novel was so vulgar and repulsive as to not be allowed to exist in New York. In this case the New York government decided to partake in censorship in order to limit the ability of the public to read this novel (Attorney).
In Ohio a law was passed to censor sexual expression after the publication of Tropic of Cancer. This law was subsequently challenged and in the case Jacobellis V. Ohio in 1964 censorship was officially considered illegal by the 1st amendment and the 14th state obligations amendment. Tropic of Cancer was thus legalized in Ohio (Jacobellis). With censorship being declared illegal in Ohio because of Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller had effectively made all Ohio citizens more free to express themselves (Toren).
In Grove Press, Inc, V. Gerstein the Supreme Court of the United Stated granted Grove Press's appeal for a Writ of Certiorari. Tropic of Cancer, by a split decision, became considered legal by the United States Supreme Court, and censorship was confirmed to be illegal based off of the Ohio ruling during Jacobellis V. Ohio. This expanded the authority of the 1st amendment, gave people the right to discuss sex and enlarged the nation's freedom of expression (Grove). This essential legalization of sex in pop culture had a great influence on the American Culture of the late 60's and onward and has helped us become a much more sexually expressive and accepting society (Toren).
Henry Miller is a largely forgotten character that greatly influenced American culture with his work as well as with the litigation that challenged it. No one could have guessed that the novel he wrote during his blithe tenure in the Parisian 1930's would have had the incredible impact on American law as well as American culture as a whole that it ended up having. His eccentric life, influenced by French Surrealism, socialism, a rejection of material ideals and a lifelong obsession with love making, seems to me to be the epitome of Big Sur culture.