3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon
Theodore Dreiser: Twelve Men
Of greater consequence to Miller's literary development was an encounter in San Diego with Emma Goldman and her lecture-circuit companion Ben Reitman. They turned Miller toward the social and aesthetic vision of the European realists and naturalists. In the ensuing years, Miller read Balzac, Zola, Hamsun, Ibsen, Shaw, Gorki, and others. By 1919, when Miller managed to get a few reviews in print, he was comparing Emerson and Whitman unfavorably with Shaw, Balzac, Zola, Joseph Conrad and Jack London--writers "who keep the theory within the realm of pragmatic truth." He unsuccessfully tried to integrate their literary techniques with the philosophical aesthetics of Nietzsche, the writer who, along with Whitman, would dominate his Paris years. Unable to achieve such a synthesis, Miller settled upon a compromise: he would emulate Theodore Dreiser, who had just published a book of socially critical sketches entitled Twelve Men (1919).
Dreiser's appeal as a literary model lay in his success in mixing naturalist observation with pontifical asides of social and philosophic criticism. If Dreiser, another autodidact, could write novels without synthesizing his literary practice and critical theories--except as a strange tonal mixture of social moralism and social Darwinism--that seemed good enough for Miller. In 1922, during a vacation from a job as personnel director of Western Union's main office in New York--the only job he ever successfully held--Miller set out to moralize upon the evils of Horatio Alger's success stories. "Clipped Wings," as he titled the manuscript he then began and completed in 1924 but never published, was modeled directly upon Dreiser's Twelve Men. His first novelistic effort told the tales of twelve ethnic messengers crushed by American capitalism, whom Miller had hired and compulsively befriended. "Clipped Wings" struck the tone, midway between sentimentalism and outraged sensationalism, that Dreiser helped establish as the hallmark of American naturalism.
"Clipped Wings" was a literary failure, as Miller reluctantly recognized--not quite a collection of short stories, not quite a collection of essays, and definitely not a novel. He managed to salvage a chapter on a Columbia University doctoral candidate from India. Retitled "Black and White," the story/essay was submitted to W.E.B. Du Bois, who published it as the cover piece of the May 1924 issue of The Crisis. The revised chapter, in style and substance, still mimicked Twelve Men to a fault:
Of all the foreign students who register at our big universities the plight of the Hindus is by far the worst. They find it almost impossible to get decent employment because of the barrier of color. Consequently they are thankful to get jobs as elevator runners, porters, janitors, newsboys, servants, messengers, bus boys, etc. These jobs, of course, mean long hours, little pay, grueling work, continuous mortification, and hardly any recreation. Yet they bear their lot like Stoics, these Hindus. I know of no more cheerful, self-sustaining, respectable group of young men.
College life was a hoax. The student body had little or no ideals. [....] They argued no culture, no strides in the art of living, no cultivation of human sympathies. The college boy was as crudely class and race conscious as the rest.
This was Miller's first significant appearance in print. His next significant publication came in The Menorah Journal a few years later with a piece entitled "Houston Street Burlesque." Had Miller started earlier, encountered more encouragement, or fallen in among different associates, his writing might have developed along the lines of Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, or the ethnic local colorists. What did happen was that in the summer of 1923 he chanced to meet June Mansfield, a "taxi dancer" who inhabited an imaginative world of Orientalism, alcohol, drugs, Strindberg, and fin de siécle romantic decadence. Miller left his first wife, married June, and drifted into her Greenwich Village orbit.
Between 1924 and his final departure for Paris, Miller increasingly found his aesthetic tastes and philosophical interests at odds with the novelistic practice he had been preparing to pursue. For a change he attempted automatic writing, but was told by one best-selling writer, Bruce Barton, "It is obvious, young man, that you will never be a writer." H. L. Mencken mistakenly addressed similar sentiments to "Miss Miller." Sent by new friends to read Spengler, Bergson, more Nietzsche, and Dostoevski, Proust, and Joyce, Miller tried a number of times to rework the naturalist description of "Clipped Wings," also drawing upon and revising the extensive notebooks he had long kept on life around him. The twelve ethnic messenger stories were retold as the story of their personnel director, "Dion Moloch." The effort was first ironically titled "This Gentile World," and later simply "Moloch." "Moloch" was the completed manuscript Miller took to Paris in 1930. The other work Miller brought to Europe, the untitled draft, related in the third person the story of Miller's Prohibition era life (as "Tony Bring") in Greenwich Village with June. In Paris this draft was reworked and supplemented with material from the notebooks to become "Crazy Cock." Rewritten in the first person, the revised draft told the story of Miller, June, and June's ambiguously lesbian friend Jean. The two novels, "Moloch" and the draft that developed into "Crazy Cock," shared the fate of "Clipped Wings." Miller had gained experience as a novelist, but he had been unable to shake the influence of Dreiser. These works, whether written in the first or third person, remained marred by the same dreary description and manifest moralism. Though later cannibalized--the material of "Clipped Wings," "Moloch," the Tony Bring draft, and "Crazy Cock" were reworked once again in Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and much later in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy--they were set aside when Miller began the planning and writing of his "Song of Myself," Tropic of Cancer, in 1931.