- Henry Miller, and: Henry Miller: The Major Writings
It has been over seven years since Henry Miller died. During that time the academic community has been surprisingly reluctant to pass judgment on the enduring worth of his contribution to American literature, and although J. D. Brown's Henry Miller and Leon Lewis' Henry Miller: The Major Writings —the first book-length studies of Miller's work since his death—are not definitive enough to deliver that judgment, both do offer considerable insight into "the rogue elephant of American literature" (as Lawrence Durrell once called Miller) and deserve a place on the select bookshelf of first-rate Miller criticism.
As the latest volume in Ungar's Literature and Life: American Writers Series, J. D. Brown's Henry Miller is a survey text intended more for undergraduates, graduates, and generalists than for the specialist. In it, Brown covers Miller's entire life from his childhood in Brooklyn to his last years in Pacific Palisades, briefly discusses as many as space will allow of the ninety or more works that comprise the Miller canon, and places him firmly within the American autobiographical tradition. After an opening chapter in which Miller's early, disastrous efforts to become a writer are detailed, the book is divided evenly into three chapters on the "Paris" books (Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn) and three chapters on the "American" books (principally The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, The Time of the Assassins, The Rosy Crucifixion, and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch) with a transitional chapter on The Colossus of Maroussi and a coda on Miller's central place in American autobiography.
Brown's intent in his work is not so much to be original as to consolidate the gain in critical reputation that Miller experienced in the '60s and '70s. For him, then, Henry Miller "remains a great American writer" rather than an "artist-piffler" (Alwyn Lee), a "minor figure" (Frank Kermode), or a "talented hick" (Stanley Kauffmann). And in arguing his case for Miller's greatness, Brown is remarkably persuasive, partly because of the cumulative weight of seeing Miller's career whole for the first time, partly because his coda on Miller's importance in the tradition of American autobiography is such a fine piece of work. In only twelve pages, he convinces the reader of the validity of his controlling generalization: Miller's "greatest achievements were as a surrealist, as a vernacular humorist, as a transcendentalist, and as an autobiographer. In these four respects Miller ranks with the best writers of this century." Such a generalization is not, of course, new, but the clarity, concision, and unity of Brown's apologia for Miller are noteworthy.
Yet Henry Miller is not a book without faults. The speed with which Brown has to shuttle through the Miller canon sometimes causes dizziness. The grasp Brown has on the facts intermittently slips. There are also occasional repetitions and an overfondness for tendentious generalization. There is too much quotation [End Page 316] from Miller's works tied to too little analysis, and, finally, a too-ready identification of Miller with the persona of his "auto-novels." Because Miller was, self-confessedly, a man of "a thousand faces, [and] all of them genuine," such an identification poses problems left unexplored in J. D. Brown's Henry Miller.
Leon Lewis' study is altogether weightier than Brown's book: more subtle, more complex, more densely argued. After an introduction, entitled "Acolytes and Adversaries," in which he surveys the history of criticism on Miller and emphasizes the intent of his argument—"to see fully what Miller was trying to do"—Lewis spends three chapters constructing an original and, at times, provocative argument, and six chapters developing his thesis through a close reading of Miller's "major" writings.
Lewis' argument is tripartite: first, that Miller needed to recreate a substitute place for the vanished happiness and wonder of his Brooklyn childhood and tried to do...