How can someone who spent their entire adult life writing about themselves be nonetheless unknown?
This is the central question underlying Arthur Hoyle’s new book, “The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.” It’s a brilliant book – “the best ever written” about his father, according to Tony Miller – and we at the Library will have the honor of hosting Arthur, who’ll talk more about it, on May 17th (info here.)
But back to our original question.
The idea of mystique can be critical to any artist’s “brand.” Sometimes it’s legitimate and worthy. Think Pynchon, Salinger, Harper Lee, etc. These writers never give interviews, and good luck finding photos of them.
This phenomenon, of course, is a byproduct of our pre-digital age, but it’s also intentional, well-cultivated, and in the case of the aforementioned writers, sincere. Thomas Pynchon really doesn’t want to be photographed (although apparently he freely walks the streets of midtown Manhattan thoroughly unmolested.)
It’s like growing up in the 1990s: some of us listened to Pavement for years before we actually saw an actual picture of the band!
So what to make of Miller, then? Miller has propagated the Miller “brand” since the 1930s, and if anything, he’s too open, too unfiltered, too known. Yet Arthur Hoyle claims that despite all this, the man – or parts of the man – did, in fact, remain unknown, which makes the book so interesting.
The Unknown Henry Miller recounts Miller’s career from its beginnings in Paris in the 1930s but focuses on his years living in Big Sur, California, from 1944 to 1961, during which he wrote many of his most important books, including The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, married and divorced twice, raised two children, painted watercolors, and tried to live out an aesthetic and personal credo of self-realization.
And that’s a key distinction: the general public is, more or less, consumed with the “hedonistic” Miller of the Parisian gutters of the 30s, which inevitably yields a one-dimensional (and often inaccurate) portrayal of the writer, who after all, also dabbled in quasi-fiction to obscure the “true” reality he was working in. People hear what they want to hear.
And despite his canonical “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch,” even less is understood about this “Big Sur”-era Miller: the city boy hiking two miles a day to get his mail, the somewhat Zen-like elder literary statesman, the gnarled and melancholy veteran of the “sexual revolution” (whatever that means.)
More to the point, Hoyle’s book finds: that behind the ‘bad boy image,’ we find a man with devoted friendships, whose challenge of literary sexual taboos was part of a broader assault on the dehumanization of man and commercialization during the postwar years.
He puts Miller’s alleged misogyny in the context of his satire of sexual mores in general, and makes the case for restoring this groundbreaking writer to his “rightful place in the American literary canon.”