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Henry Miller

December 26 marks the birthday of author Henry Miller.  Born in New York City in 1891, he was the only child of a German-American working-class couple.  His father, Heinrich, was a tailor.  Louise (Nieting) Miller, his mother, never showed much maternal affection toward her son, whom, along with Miller's mentally handicapped sister, she beat regularly.

At school, Miller was a good student.  But by the time he reached the age of seventeen, he was rambunctious and rebellious.  He decided that he wanted to experience sex, so he visited his first brothel where he promptly contracted gonorrhea. 

"From five to ten were the most important years of my life;" Miller said.  "I lived in the street and acquired the typical American gangster spirit."

With money his father gave him to finance his college education, Miller traveled to the Southwest before veering north to Alaska.  When he returned, he went to work in his father's tailor shop, but he left after unsuccessfully trying to unionize the workforce.  He ran a speakeasy in Greenwich Village, but that, too, proved unsuccessful.   In 1917, he married Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, an amateur pianist, and became a father.  He also had a brief affair with his mother-in-law.

From 1920 to 1924, Miller worked at the Western Union Telegraph Company.  He left his family and moved in with June Mansfield Smith, a Broadway dancer, who encouraged Miller's literary aspirations.  The relationship inspired Miller's early novels,  Moloch and Crazy Cock, the latter published posthumously in 1991. 

Miller didn't begin to write seriously until he was 40, although he had published essays and short stories in a magazine in the late 1910s.  Clipped Wings, which he wrote in 1922, was rejected by Macmillan Publishing Co.  June worked occasionally as a waiter, but her restless lifestyle, which originally had attracted her to Miller, made him miserable.  In 1930, he moved to France, where he soon found himself penniless.  He met Austrian writer Alfred Perlés, who paid Miller's rent and his cafe bills, and Anaïs Nin, who entered his life in 1931.  Shortly after, she began supporting him financially.

In the fall of his second year in Paris, Miller wrote: "I have no money, no resources, no hopes.  I am the happiest man alive."  His early books were published almost exclusively by the Obelisk Press, founded by Jack Kahane, who wrote erotic novels under the pseudonyms of Cecil Barr and Basil Carr.

While in Paris, Miller wrote about his Bohemian experiences in Tropic of Cancer (1934), of which he said, "This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word.  No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty...what you will.  I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing."

The book was immediately banned in the U.S. for its alleged obscenities and graphic sexual content.  In 1964, the Supreme Court finally ruled that Tropic of Cancer could not be suppressed.  It had already sold two million copies.  Meanwhile, the triangular relationship between Miller, June, and Nin formed the basis for several of Nin's journals and the film, Henry and June (1990). 

When English writer George Orwell traveled to Spain to report on the Civil War, he stopped in Paris to meet Miller, who told him he was a pacifist.  Miller's major works from this period include Black Spring (1936), based on his childhood's experiences in Brooklyn, and The Colossis of Maroussi (1941), inspired by his visit to Greece in 1939.

In 1942, Miller moved to California, settling eventually on the coast outside Big Sur.  "It is my belief that the immature artist seldom thrives in idyllic surroundings," Miller wrote in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch (1957).  "If an art colony is established here it will go the way of all the others.  Artists never thrive in colonies.  Ants do.  What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with his problems in solitude - and now and then a piece of red meat." 

In 1944, Miller married Janina Martha Lepska, a young philosophy student more than 30 years his junior.  Their marriage ended after seven years, but Miller soon found a new companion, Eve McClure, an artist, whom he married in 1953.

Henry Miller died in Pacific Palisades on June 7, 1980.

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