Has Miller’s reputation “declined” while his influence simultaneously “remains “vital?”
So says this piece in the UK Guardian on the 80th (!) anniversary of the publication of “Tropic of Cancer” in Paris (as well as Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night.”)
Check it out, especially the Comments section. It’s pretty even-handed. The crux of the argument is two-fold:
1. Miller’s misogynistic tone hasn’t aged well. And:
2. The writing can be a bit too excited, a bit too overwrought. Quote:
“The book is peppered with philosophical asides, poetic outbursts and graphic sexual details, devices pioneered by his hero Rimbaud, whom Miller is often merely mimicking. Tropic is not Miller’s finest book, but nonetheless an important introduction to his innovative literary vision.”
And it’s true, no matter how you dress up his more explicit passages, it can still make you feel icky. That said, we’re not entirely sure this has contributed to a “decline” in his reputation (and we’re not just saying that because we work at the Henry Miller Memorial Library.) For example:
1. Those passages need to be contextualized (as corny as that sounds.) It’s not a cop-out to say Miller was talking, in many instances, in the voice of the “common man.” It may be gross, but hey, so are common men. And that’s what made it vital. This theme is explored by Christopher Moore in this illuminating blog, where he notes:
“For Eton-educated Orwell, I suspect what he secretly loved about Tropic of Cancer was his feeling Miller was interested in bringing what was common in the real life of ordinary people with all of its callous coarseness out into the open. What he secretly envied was Miller’s class credentials.
Cue the Pulp!
2. Looking back 80 years later, jeepers, those passages are, relatively speaking, somewhat tame. (Bi?)curious, I recently opened up “Fifty Shades of Grey” in an airport bookstore and audibly gasped. I blushed, put the book back, bought some Doritos, and got the hell out of there!
3. History has shown that Miller – believe it or not – actually likes women. To paint Miller as a sexist based on a handful of sexy passages in Cancer is a tad unfair. And over the last 80 years, we’ve come to get a fuller picture of his feelings towards women.
Furthermore, Miller’s honest thoughts on the fairer sex have done millions of women an enormous favor. He voluntarily and gleefully pried open his id – the quasi-collective id of the entire male race, in fact – and invited women to peer in. It’s like those stupid Cosmo articles (“Hey ladies – what do men REALLY thing about bangs? except in that case, Cosmo just asked Jared, the 22-year old intern what he thinks.)
Perhaps that’s why many women and feminist-inclined writers have found Miller so fascinating. Erica Jong, naturally, comes to mind:
“What Henry had that others so resented was wholeness…His exuberance, the happiness that comes across in his work, was visible in him even when he was old and ill. The voice he found expressed the abundance of the man. It was not the sex the puritans hated and feared. It was the abundance.”
Anyway, members of the jury, it is painful obvious that while the article is well-written and fair, one can safely say his reputation hasn’t declined. Perhaps it’s remained the same. It’s shifted in a lateral fashion.
You know who’s reputation has declined? Thomas Jefferson’s. He sucks. But I digress.
[For the record, we do agree that his writing – Miller’s, that is – can be a it too excited, a bit too overwrought.]
At the same time, yes, his influence has remain vital. In fact, we’d like to call it the “Velvet Underground Effect,” the old saying (misquoted from Brian Eno) that “only about 1,000 people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every one of them formed a rock and roll band”.
And hey, you could do a lot worse than be compared to the Velvet Underground – irrefutably the coolest band ever by several nautical miles (pun intended)!