3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon

Michael Fraenkel: Write as you talk, I told him.

Henry Miller's improvident expatriation to Paris was intended to precipitate a crisis.[21] It did. In Paris he fell in with a group of writers and intellectuals thoroughly versed in what the expatriate magazine transition, inspired by Ulysses and Joyce's "Work in Progress," had been trumpeting as "The Revolution of the Word." In a city of slogans, the circle Miller joined had taken to styling itself "The New Instinctivists": Michael Fraenkel, Walter Lowenfels and Alfred Perles composed its ruling triumvirate. Once again Miller apprenticed himself to a new set of literary masters. They confirmed what he had suspected but refused to admit: not simply "Clipped Wings," but his novelistic techniques on the whole, were obsolete, outdated by an emerging modernist aesthetics. With this latest set of friends, and particularly with Michael Fraenkel, who became Miller's host and subsequently his landlord and co-author of Hamlet, Miller reread Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoevski, Proust, Lawrence, Eliot, Joyce, Nietzsche, Spengler, Faure, and others. For the first time he studied Dada, Surrealism, Freud, Jung, and contemporary British-American literary criticism. Through Anaïs Nin, Miller met Otto Rank, who eventually read a draft of Tropic of Cancer and advised Miller on its psycho-cultural import. Miller learned his lessons. By the late thirties he was no longer a fringe adopted son of "The New Instinctivists," but the energizing center of an international assortment of artists who orbited about Miller and Fraenkel's apartment at 18 Via Seurat.[22]

Miller's break with his Dreiserian past came when Michael Fraenkel rejected "Crazy Cock," telling Miller to begin again:

Write as you talk, I told him. Write as you live. Write as you feel and think. Just sit down before the machine and let go--tell everything you are going through now; you've got all the material you want right in this, in what you are thinking and feeling and going through now. Forget the fancy stories and novels and that sort of thing. Write about yourself, your life. Get all this pent-up emotion out of your system. Evacuate the trenches! A writer's first duty now is to himself--to liberate himself, to come clean of his past, his death, to come alive. A personal record. No time for anything else. Anything else is literature--with a bad smell![23]

Miller took to heart Fraenkel's critique of his aesthetics. He understood that he had failed as a realist, at best managing a slavish imitation of Dreiser. If those failures could be explained away by Fraenkel's judgment that realism was not his forte, moreover, if in Fraenkel's judgment even successful realist novels had become "literature-with a bad smell!" Miller would try his hand at Fraenkel's modernist aesthetics. But Fraenkel's inspiration was also negative. Despite Fraenkel's advice to "write as you talk," Miller recognized that there was little of the "instinctive" in Fraenkel's "New Instinctivism." His ambition could not be satisfied with a merely personal record which, by insinuation, would be inferior to Fraenkel's fully developed weltanschauung. Further, once dissatisfied with his merely imitative admiration of Dreiser, Miller could not now bring himself to adopt by rote what he perceived to be Fraenkel's purely bookish modernist aesthetics. Miller's challenge to the emerging modernist aesthetics began, as had every turn of his literary development, on a personal level, when he set out to surpass Fraenkel and by extension all the writers Fraenkel admired.

The writing of Tropic of Cancer was preceded and accompanied by an extensive program of reading.[24] Looking backward in The Books in My Life (1969), Miller enjoyed representing himself as a willful, fitful, impatient reader, as likely to put down as pick up any book, as likely to find inspiration in mystical communion with the author's name and title page as through an interrogation of its contents.[25] This posture is familiar, and one might say with Huck Finn, "There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth"--except that in the case of The Books in My Life it was mainly stretchers. Throughout his early New York and Paris years, Miller was an ambitious and patient reader. The range and eclecticism of his vocabulary derives from years in the New York Public Library reading everything from Funk & Wagnalls Unabridged Dictionary to scientific and technical journals and encyclopedias.[26] It is not difficult to see in Miller's choice of reading material something of an autodidactic overcompensation for the lack of a formal education. In Paris this pace of reading continued, except that Miller now read under the direction of Fraenkel and friends, and read with a specific purpose. He devoured every critical and historical tract he could lay hands on--English, German (the language of his childhood), and French (tediously, with a dictionary). He began searching for transcendence, but soon found himself looking for a way around the impasse a newly consolidated modernism presented his ambition. His letters to Anaïs Nin and others were filled with jubilant discoveries, inspirations, visions, and avenues of escape which would be abandoned as dead ends, only days later, in favor of yet more promising inroads against the aesthetic consensus growing stronger all about him.

« Previous | Main | Next »