8. The Last Book

Poor Richard's Almanac, Emerson's Essays, Walden

The mixed-mode writing that characterizes Miller's American novels and essays--more or less linear narrative punctuated by didactic meditations upon the proper "path" of Man in the modern age--suggests a continuation of the last Hamlet letter to Michael Fraenkel, rather than a sequel to Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn. In this sense Miller fashioned of his reaction to the Munich Crisis a new literary practice that would accommodate his speculations upon the ethical and psychological dimensions of his life and work. After the Munich Crisis, Miller quite deliberately and knowingly abandoned the discourse of the novel to join that broader American cultural discourse whose generic parameters may be indicated here by pointing to the ground first charted by Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, Emerson's Essays, and Thoreau's Walden. This is the ground to which Miller refers when he writes that "at the age of twenty-one I was nearer to being 'on the path' than I have been at any time since," and the ground he retrospectively explored first in writing and then in rereading Tropic of Capricorn. At the age of twenty-one Miller became a disciple of New Thought lecturer Benjamin Fay Mills. At the age of forty-seven, having reassessed his life and reread his literature, he was intent upon returning to the life of "self-liberation" he only represented in Tropic of Capricorn.

In his letter to Fraenkel, Miller defends his change of attitude, experimenting with the didactic voice of his later works, while claiming, perhaps disingenuously, that he does "not yet know what course of action to pursue." It is in a letter to Nin written in February 1939, between the final proofing and the publication of Tropic of Capricorn, that Miller makes clear his "course of action" would entail not simply a redoubled attention to self-preservation, but also an extensive, detailed reinterpretation of his literature. The letter to Nin announces the change through an elaboration of the "mid-life crisis" theme of the previous October's letter to Fraenkel:

When I say, as I often do, that my life since twenty-one up until recently was but a detour I mean that a large part of my efforts were wasted in an unacknowledged struggle to adapt myself to the world, the final adaptation masking itself as an effort to conquer or seduce the world through my creative powers as a writer. I should have been adapting myself to myself.[28]

In Tropic of Cancer the "detour" had been Miller's figure for his autobiographical art, for his narrative effort to "conquer or seduce the world"--most immediately the world, the "history of our time, of this age which is sliding into darkness," represented and embodied by the "archaeological," "extra-temporal history" of Ulysses and "Work in Progress."[29] Here the "detour" reappears as a figure for Miller's life which, by 1939, was the life of an artist, a life with "creative powers." The later "detour" is more than an expansion of earlier usage in that it effects a reversal of the relation between art and life: the art that had sought to capture life is now captured by life, transforming the "detour" of narrative into as great a "waste" as the Waste Land life it represented. Therefore, Miller concludes, the "detour" must come to an end, not in a return to the Modernist fold, but in an exit from the novelist's art of representing life, into Life itself: "If, as Balzac says, all creation is but transformation, then creation too will eventually give way to being."[30]

Miller clearly insists that the impossible feat of "giving way to being" requires nothing less than what he calls in Tropic of Capricorn "a clean exit, such as the Devil himself might make for reasons of his own."[31] The letter to Nin "goes reconnoitering" back through the rhetoric of Miller's narrative modernism searching for such a "clean exit."[32] One of the stops revisited is the epigraph to his "Self-Portrait," Black Spring, where Miller had recognized, and in recognizing, celebrated, writing about the self as a detour from which there could be no return:

Can I be as I believe myself or as others believe me to be? Here is where these lines become a confession in the presence of my unknown and unknowable me, unknown and unknowable for myself. Here is where I create the legend wherein I must bury myself.[33]

Walt Whitman stood behind Miller's attraction to Miguel de Unamuno's confession. It is to Whitman that Miller returns at the close of his expatriation to express new-found suspicions about literary self-creation.

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