3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon
Only the myth lives in myth
But the question, it seems to me, is this: are we born Hamlets? Were you born Hamlet? Or did you not rather create the type in yourself? Whether this be so or not, what seems infinitely more important is--why revert to myth?... This ideational rubbish out of which our world has erected its cultural edifice is now, by a critical irony, being given its poetic immolation, its mythos, through a kind of writing which, because it is of the disease and therefore beyond, clears the ground for fresh superstructures. (In my own mind the thought of 'fresh superstructures' is abhorrent, but this is merely the awareness of a process and not the process itself.) Actually, in process, I believe with each line I write that I am scouring the womb, giving it the curette, as it were. Behind this process lies the idea not of 'edifice' and 'superstructure,' which is culture and hence false, but of continuous birth, renewal, life, life.... In myth there is no life for us. Only the myth lives in myth.
Henry Miller to Michael Fraenkel, Hamlet (1936)
Henry Miller sailed from New York in February 1930 and arrived in Paris in March. He had visited Paris two years earlier during a nine month European tour with his second wife June Mansfield, the apocalyptic "Mona"/"Mara" of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. This time, however, he made the crossing alone and came to stay, bringing with him several changes of clothing tailored by his father, ten dollars, the manuscript of a novel he would never publish, and a first draft of a work he would abandon. He also brought Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In retrospect it is plain that the Whitman volume constituted Miller's most significant baggage, but this was not clear in 1930 when Miller had yet to break fully with realism and naturalism. He carried Leaves of Grass with a sense of bitter irony, as a token of personal failure, rather than a model for writing. Whitman could proclaim,
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin[....]
By contrast, Miller, who spoke only German until he entered school, descended on his mother and father's side from grandparents who emigrated to America to flee military conscription. Born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, Henry Miller, descendent of expatriates, had now become an expatriate himself. Fleeing America, he wrote home, "Jesus, when I think of being thirty-eight, poor, and unknown, I get furious." By his own exaggerated estimation, he had arrived in Paris unprepared, twenty years too late for the modernist experiment.
At a time when colleges were replacing journalism as the training ground for serious American writers, Miller dropped out of City College in 1909, during his freshman year. Thereafter, his self-education, literary and critical, was piecemeal, directed haphazardly by the reading suggestions which friends and acquaintances sent him. It is not difficult to discern a resemblance between the twists and turns of his informal intellectual development and the narrative twists and turns of allusion and reference in his Paris prose. In the form(lessness) of Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn, Miller would seek to legitimate the form(lessness) of the education to be had in the life of the streets. "What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature." But upon his arrival in Paris, Miller still regarded his past as a regrettable detour, something to be overcome rather than elaborated.
Three years after Miller dropped out of City College, a chance encounter set in motion the series of aesthetic permutations that would ultimately lead to his unorthodox modernism. During a period of despondency, Miller was introduced to a friend's half-brother, a disciple of New Thought, who in turn introduced Miller to his master, lecturer Benjamin Fay Mills. In Miller, Mills found a ready disciple, and he quickly indoctrinated Miller in the "spiritual" dimensions of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Almost as quickly as they were adopted, however, Emerson and Whitman were displaced by another pantheon of heroes. In 1913, as a result of his New Thought contacts, Miller enlisted in a "Strenuous Life" commune at Point Loma, California, near San Diego. Dissatisfied with New Thought, he soon fell in with members and supporters of the I.W.W., at a time when radical politics and general strikes were sweeping the west coast. While the shift from pop-spiritualism to populist materialism marked Miller's politics for the rest of his life, Miller held his allegiance to I.W.W. politics as lightly as he had held his New Thought discipleship. The California experience crystallized Miller's working class sympathies but left him as impatient with the promise of radical politics as with the promise of American life. Later he wrote, "I was up against the whole system of American labor, which is rotten at both ends. I was the fifth wheel on the wagon and neither side had any use for me, except to exploit me."