Kenneth Rexroth: The Reality of Henry Miller

Well worth reading, despite the blindingly tasteless turquoise background at, is Beat poet-translator-essayist-painter-anarchist Kenneth Rexroth's 1955 essay " The Reality of Henry Miller".

Rexroth (1905-1982), sometimes called "The Godfather of the Beats," originally wrote this piece as an introduction to Nights of Love and Laughter, a Signet anthology of publishable bits of Miller, whose Paris works were then still banned in the United States. "The Reality of Henry Miller" was reprinted a few years later in a New Directions collection of Rexroth's own essays, Bird in the Bush (1959).

Readers who've come to Miller through his 1960's "sexual liberation" guise or through the proto-New Age wisdom aura of the works of the last decade of his life will find much that is familiar in Rexroth, but also some strikingly different notes. It is, of course, those differences that are most interesting and illuminating.

Rexroth writing in 1955, obviously knowing nothing of what the future would bring, nothing of the later culture of the 1960s and 70s, helps us back to a Miller and a period of American "counter-culture" we almost cannot know otherwise, so steeped are we, without even thinking about it, in those subsequent blinding self-accountings and tsunami of commercializations of the Baby-Boomers' supposed "cultural revolution." Rexroth speaks to us from the distant other side of that - for better or for worse - cultural debacle, pointing to a Miller most of us growing up afterwards now only hazily discern.

Rexroth in 1955 still sees and appreciates Miller through the Beat preoccupation with authenticity, which was at once more political and less personal than that term now typically conveys, today so fallen into disuse.

Miller, the authentic, figures for Rexroth as some kind of cross between a "noble savage," a "modern primitive," and a better sort of "proletarian novelist" for neither being proletarian nor having a "social message." Miller is Rexroth's "religious writer" who is "not especially profound"; his "very unliterary writer" who "is not unsophisticated"; his Paris expatriate whose Paris is not so much Paris as it is still Brooklyn.

Miller, in short, is everywhere betwixt and between for Rexroth, this but not this, that but not that, because for Rexroth betwixt and between is fundamentally how one falls through "the Great Lie, the social hoax in which we live" to get to the Outside, to become authentic, to join the Others, also authentic for having fallen through America's cracks.

Thus Rexroth's most un-Sixties, un-PC, positive celebration of Miller and the politics of non-voting:

Fifty percent of the people in this country don't vote. They simply don't want to be implicated in organized society. With, in most cases, a kind of animal instinct, they know that they cannot really do anything about it, that the participation offered them is a hoax. And even if it weren't, they know that if they don't participate, they aren't implicated, at least not voluntarily. It is for these people, the submerged fifty percent, that Miller speaks. As the newspapers never tire of pointing out, this is a very American attitude. Miller says, "I am a patriot - of the Fourteenth Ward of Brooklyn, where I was raised." For him life has never lost that simplicity and immediacy. Politics is the deal in the saloon back room. Law is the cop on the beat, shaking down whores and helping himself to apples. Religion is Father Maguire and Rabbi Goldstein, and their actual congregations. Civilization is the Telegraph Company in Tropic of Capricorn. All this is a quite different story to the art critics and the literary critics and those strange people the newspapers call "pundits" and "solons."

Odd how tellingly this reads today: how "American," now that America, politically, socially, internationally, has lost its delusory post-1960's lustre; all its universal human promises and isms faded into pc-schoolboy and pc-schoolgirl gender-neutral, inverted-colorist catechisms. Odd how tellingly Rexroth from 1955 reads today, now that America has become once again, as in Rexroth's 1950s, a place, a symbol in which a great many of us with rather not be implicated, at least not voluntarily.

Perhaps, too, Miller answers today in ways he could never answer as an icon of "sexual liberation" or the wise hermit of Big Sur. Perhaps Miller, through his Paris writings, answers today, not from Rexroth's (or Miller's) 1950s, but from Miller's own 1930s, witness to the western world's seemingly unstoppable slide in fascism and war:

Life is just a mess, full of tall children, grown stupider, less alert and resilient, and nobody knows what makes it go - as a whole, or any part of it. But nobody ever tells.
Henry Miller tells.

rri (February 1, 2005)

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