Leave it to Roxane Gay to come up with a novel format for an essay on the feminist novel. In the new issue of Dissent, she presents eleven theses on the topic, including references to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Sample quote: “Not every novel that concerns itself with the lives of women is a feminist novel. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a feminist novel.” You could also read our own Edan Lepucki on the problem with feminist anthems.
“Why is Helen Gurley Brown trending?” a confused man in San Francisco recently tweeted. The answer is Lena Dunham, who has put HGB back in the spotlight again, with the publication of her memoir/self-help manual, Not That Kind of Girl.
Anyone who has read or simply read about Dunham’s book probably knows that she was inspired by Brown’s 1982 bestseller, Having It All, which she bought for 65 cents at a thrift store in Ohio, thinking it would be “a decorative joke, something for my shelf of kitschy trophies.”
As it happened, the book became an unlikely lifeline. A student at Oberlin at the time, Lena inhaled Helen’s recipes for success (and probably a fair amount of dust), with some reservations. “Most of her advice . . . is absolutely bananas,” Dunham writes in her introduction to Not That Kind of Girl. “But despite her demented theories, which jibe not even a little bit with my distinctly feminist upbringing, I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone.”
As someone who has been working on a book about Helen Gurley Brown for the past few years, I’m thrilled to see her name in the press again, and I think it’s great that Dunham is tipping her hat to Brown in her own memoir, which features a similar structure as Having It All (both books are divided into themed sections), a photo of the author in a classic ’80s power pose, and the line, “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all.”
I, too, own a copy of Having It All. When I read Dunham’s description of her thrift-store find, which came with a stranger’s inscription, I smiled in recognition . . . My pre-loved copy of the book came via Amazon, with a slight scent of mildew, dog-eared pages, and an ancient, discolored photograph that fell out as soon as I opened it. I do not know the mustached, mostly naked, overly tanned man pictured in the photo. I only know that whoever took the photo used too much flash and must have thought that her boyfriend/lover looked pretty damn sexy posing in a bathroom doorway wearing his tightest black banana-hammock with brown cowboy boots and a thin gold chain. As long as I own this copy of Having It All, he will continue to live among its pages, along with some of Helen Gurley Brown’s best and worst advice. They simply belong together.
Not That Kind of Girl and Having It All belong together, too, in the relatively small canon of cheeky memoir/self-help-books-written-for-women-by-women. I understand why, in press interviews and public talks, Dunham keeps referencing Brown’s guide for attracting “love, success, sex, money, even if you’re starting with nothing.”
Granted, Dunham hardly started with nothing: The daughter of artists, she grew up in Soho and attended the prestigious Saint Anne’s School in Brooklyn, before studying creative writing at Oberlin. Brown’s childhood was far less comfy. Born in the tiny town of Green Forest, Arkansas, she was just a girl when her father died in an elevator accident, forcing her grieving mother to uproot the family to Los Angeles, where Helen’s older sister was diagnosed with polio. I’m guessing that Dunham probably could afford not to work. Helen didn’t have a choice. She worked her way through 17 secretarial jobs before landing the career (and the husband) of her dreams.
The story of Helen Gurley Brown is ultimately one about the power of will, and I understand why, as a college student, Dunham gravitated toward Helen’s belief that, as the Girls creator put it, “a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born.” (See: Having It All, Chapter II, “How to ‘Mouseburger’ Your Way to the Top.”)
But I still think that Lena is spotlighting the wrong book.
The book that she should be talking about—that we all should be talking about, at least those of us who are talking about Lena Dunham and Helen Gurley Brown—is Sex and the Single Girl, which came out 20 years before Having It All, and changed the way people talked about sex (nice girls had premarital sex, too!), paving the way for shows like Sex and the City and Girls. (Props to Marisa Meltzer who made the connection at Yahoo! Style.)
Life isn’t a college syllabus, and it’s not Dunham’s job to talk about a book that didn’t speak to her, or that she may not have read yet. But from a critical perspective, talking about Having It All without mentioning Sex and the Single Girl is kind of like talking about How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong’s follow-up to Fear of Flying, without mentioning Fear of Flying.
Brown published Having It All when she was 60. She published Sex and the Single Girl when she was 40 and much closer to her experiences as a single woman working in advertising and dating around. She married the Hollywood producer David Brown at 37, considered spinster-age at the time. “I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor . . . But I don’t think it’s a miracle that I married my husband,” she began, before launching into her if-I-can-do-it-you-can-too spiel for how to lead a “rich, full life” as a single woman.
“Here is what it doesn’t take. Great beauty,” she continued. “What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”
Sex and the Single Girl became an instant bestseller, with chapters giving women advice on where to meet men and how to have an affair from beginning to end. Yes, some of the advice was beyond ridiculous. Want to get a man’s attention? “Paint your car hot orange . . . or shocking pink.” Better yet: “Carry a controversial book at all times—like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.”
But Brown also dispensed practical, often wise advice to her readers on how to start a career, how to save money, how to find an apartment, and how to embrace their own sexuality, flaws and all. “What is a sexy woman? Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex,” she wrote in a chapter called “How to Be Sexy.” “Being sexy means that you accept yourself as a woman . . . with all the functions of a woman . . . Being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable.”
What a concept! It’s hard to say what Helen Gurley Brown would have made of Lena Dunham and her nude scenes in Girls—in another chapter, she told readers that if they wanted to find a man, “Your figure can’t harbor an ounce of baby fat”—but their message of self-acceptance is similar.
Like so many books that delve into the subject of sex and have been written by women, Brown’s book was a sensation and a shock. After reading the manuscript, her own mother was appalled and recommended putting off publication. Would her book get a lot of publicity? Sure, she said, but then again so would rape or murder!*
In The San Francisco Examiner, one furious male reader called Helen Gurley Brown’s message in Sex and the Single Girl “a libel against womanhood” that threatened the chastity of the nation’s girls. “The breaking down of moral values . . . which this book indirectly advocates is leading Western civilization into a decline,” he fumed.
Fifty years later, I read Sex and the Single Girl for the first time, at the age of 34. I know it was groundbreaking at the time, but the chapters about sex seemed tame; hardly shocking to someone who was still wearing skorts and Scrunchies when Madonna writhed on a bed in a cone bra and sang about being touched for the very first time.
Admittedly, I had a similar reaction when I read Fear of Flying, a book that I now count among my favorites of all time. The “zipless fuck” doesn’t seem quite so scandalous when your mother keeps asking you if you’ve “gotten to that part yet.”
Everyone said these books were about sex, and they were, but they are also about so much more. Sex and the Single Girl, Fear of Flying, Girls . . . as different as these works are in many ways, they are all about young women learning how to be alone with themselves, how to develop themselves, and how to take care of themselves; hard and often harrowing work that, preferably, happens before finding a partner. “When you accept yourself, with all your foibles, you will be able to accept other people too,” Brown wrote. “And you and they will be happier to be near you.”
That’s the message that Dunham is trying to get across, too, and I think she succeeds. I’ve read more than a few reviews in which critics repeat some version of the line, “I read Lena Dunham’s new book. I learned nothing about Lena Dunham,” suggesting that she is putting on a persona that has little in common with the “real” Lena. Really? I felt I learned so much about her, but also about her family, her fears. I was particularly moved by Dunham’s portrait of her younger sister Grace, who used to crawl into her bed as a small child and had “the comforting, sleep-inducing properties of a hot-water bottle or a cat.” (When Dunham was writing her book, Grace was graduating college. “She’s emerged as a surprising, strange adult,” Lena says, sounding more like her mother than her sister.)
Reading about her penchant for “bed-sharing” that continued into college, I remembered girls I knew in college who went to similar lengths to avoid being alone with themselves. Her experiences as a girl growing into a woman, despite being so different from mine, were also deeply familiar. I found her memoir to be personal and unflinching, funny and at times profound. But not everyone did.
In The Guardian, book critic Hadley Freeman suggested that Dunham’s memoir be filed in a new genre of writing called “clit lit,” “books by young women writing about what is usually described as ‘all their flaws,’ which means everything that happens in their vaginas, from masturbation to menstruation, from sex to cystitis,” writes Freeman, who, at a certain point, began counting the number of times that Dunham uses the word “vagina.” She stopped when she reached 25.“ There’s sexual honesty, and then there’s just sticking your head up your vagina.”
Maybe Freeman is just trying to be funny, I don’t know. I do know that Dunham uses the word “vagina” when describing the pain she felt after being raped by a guy she knew in college and before going to see her mother’s doctor, who, upon examining her, acknowledged that, “It must have been pretty rough.”
Dunham also uses the words “vagina” and “uterus” liberally in a chapter recounting the severe stinging sensation in her crotch that sent her to her gynecologist, who diagnosed her with classic endometriosis, a disorder of the uterus that can lead to problems conceiving children. “I’m afraid that I’m infertile,” she says later in the book.
Are women writers not supposed to use the word “vagina” when discussing such subjects? Or is the problem simply discussing the subjects themselves? As for the writer at New York’s “Vulture” who, weighing in on Hannah Horvath’s nakedness on Girls, said not to apply the word “brave” to Dunham because, as he put it, “she’s not a rape victim, she is a writer-actor-director who is exceptionally well compensated both financially and in the artist’s capital of choice—attention,” maybe you should read the chapter in Dunham’s book called “Barry.” (Also, forgetting Dunham for a second, how could you assume to know this kind of personal history about anyone? )
A lot has happened since 1962 when Sex and the Single Girl came out. Lena is able to write about subjects that Helen wasn’t, including what constitutes “rape.” (In an early draft of Sex and the Office*, Brown’s 1964 sequel to Sex and the Single Girl, she included a vignette called “Rape—More or Less,” recounting one woman’s experience of being attacked by a man she knew from work. The term “date rape” didn’t exist yet, and the story never made it to her final draft.) And yet, as two women who wrote memoir-manuals more than a half a century apart, they have been treated very similarly in the press. They weren’t honest enough. They were too honest—narcissistic navel-gazers.
“I’m an unreliable narrator,” Lena writes, before recounting the story of her rape, an episode that she told differently earlier in the book.
Like people, stories change. It doesn’t mean that they’re not true. Any memoir is an exercise in reconstructing memory. Every narrator is flawed. It’s not that Dunham is more flawed than anyone else. As was the case with Helen Gurley Brown, she is just more willing to look at her flaws, to write about them—and in the process, to rewrite herself.
Like stories, people change. It doesn’t mean they’re “not real,” a popular accusation that critics have been hurling at Dunham as of late.
“How much is Dunham inhabiting a persona—in effect wearing a mask made from her own face?” New Statesmen critic Helen Lewis asked recently. “Her whole life is a performance art piece where she plays a noxious brat with great skill . . . Reading this book, you realise that Lena Dunham has been playing ‘Lena Dunham’ for a long time. She is not real.”
This just seems goofy to me. We all have our public/private faces. To some degree, we are all performers in the daily dramas of our own lives. We are all unreliable narrators of our own stories. We are all editors who choose which truths to reveal, and which to tweak or cut out altogether.
I’ve been remembering a story about Helen’s teenage cousin, Lou, who visited her in the Pacific Palisades shortly after Sex and the Single Girl came out. When Lou stayed with Helen and David in 1962, copies of the book were still in boxes, stacked in the den. One day, she asked Helen for her own copy of Sex and the Single Girl.
Lou stayed up all night reading. She was riveted. But she couldn’t help but wonder if Helen really believed everything she had written about life as a single girl—how it’s OK to sleep with guys before you get married, or have affairs with married men.
“Do you really believe that?” Lou asked Helen the next morning.
“Absolutely,” Helen said. “I believe the things I said. I just didn’t talk about how lonely it can be.”
As Dunham continues her book tour, I hope someone raises the question that Helen’s cousin asked her all those years ago. Do you believe everything you wrote?
Who knows how she would answer . . . But no one can accuse her of not talking about how lonely it can be.
*From the Helen Gurley Brown Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Koa Beck’s father gave her a copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying when she was 15 years old. Depending on your persuasion, this was either a brilliant idea or an awful parental blunder. Regardless, Beck says the book (aided by The Bell Jar and Diary of a Mad Housewife) helped her understand that “the game was rigged, that everyone was lying, [and] that there was so much more to being a woman than what society said there was.”
Henry Miller’s boyhood home at 662 Driggs Ave. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“The foam was on the lager.”
Now that Brooklyn is, by acclamation, the coolest place in the universe, it’s fitting that one of the borough’s literary lions is enjoying a week in the spotlight. The Big Sur Brooklyn Bridge Festival, which runs until Sunday, May 19, is a week-long celebration of the life and writing of native son Henry Miller, who spent the first years of his life in Williamsburg, in a three-story apartment building that’s still standing at 662 Driggs Ave. The Miller family occupied the top floor from 1892, the year after Henry’s birth, until 1900, when the respectable German-American Millers moved further inland to Bushwick to get away from the new arrivals pouring across the river from Manhattan, mostly Italians and Jews.
Today the 600 block of Driggs Avenue carries only faint echoes of Miller’s boyhood. No plaque commemorates his time there. Haberman’s noisy tin factory behind the apartment building is long gone. So are the tailor shop and veterinarian’s office across the street, and Pat McCarren’s saloon at the corner, where young Henry was sent to fetch pitchers of beer whenever relatives visited. “The foam was on the lager,” as Miller later wrote about the Williamsburg of his youth, “and people stopped to chat with one another.”
That world is gone, but no matter. Miller’s spirit still hovers over the streets of Williamsburg, which is why it was chosen as the site for this week’s festival by the Henry Miller Memorial Library of Big Sur, Calif., where Miller lived from the 1940’s until the mid-1960s, after his long-banned masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer, was finally published in the U.S. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the novel was not obscene and could no longer be banned. Nearly a half-century after that historic ruling, the Big Sur Brooklyn Bridge Festival has a pop-up bookstore in Williamsburg featuring Miller manuscripts, letters, watercolors, and first editions; there are also panel discussions, readings, and comedy and musical performances.
All of it made me stop and wonder: Does Henry Miller deserve such fuss?
“A life without hope, but no despair.”
Like many avid, life-long readers – particularly those of the American male persuasion – I went through a Henry Miller phase. Mine started late, after the peak of Miller’s fame and notoriety in the 1960s and ’70s. But my Miller phase proved to be more protracted and intense than most.
It started, appropriately enough, in Paris, where I had gone to live in 1979 because I’d fallen in love with a woman who was in school there and I thought it would be a fine place to finish writing an apprentice novel I’d been working on for several years. I was a walking cliche! – an American in Paris, suffering gorgeously, trying to write the great American novel in a seedy top-floor apartment that could fairly be called a garret. The whole thing was a fiasco. The writing wasn’t going well and I was constantly worried about money. One raw winter day, feeling utterly defeated, I knocked off work early, drew a hot bath, and slipped into the tub with a book chosen at random from the stack on the coffee table. It was Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, a book I had somehow managed to miss during the high season of the sexual revolution. Reading the opening lines was like sticking my finger into a wall socket:
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
It is now fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.
I have no money, no resources, no hope. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am.
What the fuck was this? I couldn’t say for sure. All I knew was that I had stumbled onto writing that was unlike anything I had ever read before, writing that spoke directly, almost weirdly, to my predicament, writing that had no use for plot, drama, foreshadowing, character development – all the writerly tricks that marked the “serious” fiction I’d been reading all my life. Instead of a conventional hero, there was just this American nobody shambling around the shabby back streets of Paris in the 1930s, dead broke, cadging money and drinks and meals and sex. The book’s second page hinted at what I was in for:
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in an 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….
I couldn’t stop reading. The language was bewitching, a wised-up slang Miller picked up on the streets of Brooklyn and then burnished to a ribald, hallucinatory glow. Wherever he goes, Miller’s protagonist, known only as Joe, encounters a gallery of colorful misfits. They have false teeth and halitosis, their hands sweat, they fret about syphilis and lice and the clap. They visit “joints” and “dives” and pour out rivers of “flapdoodle” and “flummery.” They’re a bunch of “butter-tongued bastards” who “fulminate” and “bombinate” and “cluck like a pygmy.” Every now and then they “throw a fuck” into a “cunt.” The sex – the thing that would make Miller famous, to his undying chagrin – is graphic, ubiquitous, usually casual (or paid for up front), and frequently hilarious. One day Joe agrees to take a distinguished Hindu visitor to a whorehouse, where the guest, unfamiliar with French plumbing, proceeds to drop a pair of “enormous turds” in the bidet. The girls and the madam are horrified. Pandemonium ensues.
But those two turds lead Joe to a liberating epiphany about the utter hopelessness of human life:
Somehow the realization that nothing was to be hoped for had a salutary effect upon me. For weeks and months, for years, in fact, all my life I had been looking forward to something happening, some extrinsic event that would alter my life, and now suddenly, inspired by the absolute hopelessness of everything, I felt relieved, felt as though a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders… I made up my mind that I would hold on to nothing, that I would expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast of prey, a rover, a plunderer.
A bit later he adds this refinement to the epiphany about the new world he has entered: “A world without hope, but no despair.”
In the end Miller, through his stand-in Joe, fulfills the promise of the book’s opening lines. He delivers that gob of spit in the eye of modern civilization and its empty promises to improve the human race. “The world is pooped out: there isn’t a dry fart left,” he declares. “Who that has a desperate, hungry eye can have the slightest regard for these existent governments, laws, codes, principles, ideals, ideas, totems, and taboos?” Delivering that gob of spit is an act of stupendous bravery because it requires a willingness to forego creature comforts and illusions and become a nobody. Better to be broke in Paris, Joe says, than to go back to America “to be put in double harness again, to work the treadmill.” It was this stance, as much as the writing itself, that turned me into a Henry Miller fan. Few possess his courage, his willingness to walk away from the American dream and embrace a life without hope. Fewer still manage to be what Miller claimed to be in the face of hopelessness – always merry and bright.
In the course of the next decade I would read every Miller title and interview I could get my hands on. But first I did something that would have appalled Miller: I pulled the plug on my failed Paris experiment and went back to America to work the treadmill, taking a job as a newspaper reporter in Norfolk, Va.
“Thomas Aquinas spoke here!”
Six months into the job, on the morning of Monday, June 9, 1980, I walked into the newsroom and learned that Henry Miller had died over the weekend in Pacific Palisades, Calif., at the age of 88. I felt a powerful need to write something about Miller for the next day’s paper, but I knew the skeptical city editor would demand a “local angle.” I paced and fretted. From what I knew, Miller had never set foot in that Virginia backwater. Then I remembered meeting Huntington Cairns, a writer and art critic who had worked at the Library of Congress for many years and was a long-time friend and supporter of Miller’s. Cairns was then living in retirement on the nearby Outer Banks. To my surprise, the city editor told me to go ahead and give Cairns a call. My story appeared in the next day’s paper under the stirring headline “Miller Is Extolled as Serious Artist.” It began:
Huntington Cairns, a citizen of the world who lives in Kitty Hawk, N.C., remembers walking to work in Washington years ago when an old friend approached.
It was Henry Miller, the writer.
“He said he wanted to go to a whorehouse,” Cairns recalled Monday. “I asked him what kind. He said he didn’t want to go to any ordinary one. He wanted to go where the senators went.”
Later in the article Cairns offers an assessment that I have come to agree with: Miller was a serious writer. He may not have been a great writer – in a league with Tolstoy – but he was an interesting writer and he was not writing pornography. He wanted the freedom to write his own view of the world as he saw it. And he was a hard-working man. He worked all day. He knew Paris like I know the palm of my own hand. We would pass a corner and he’d say, “Thomas Aquinas spoke here!”
A few years later I was working as a morning-drive disc jockey in Nashville and spending my free afternoons struggling to write a novel about a frustrated writer who’s working as a Nashville disc jockey and struggling to write a novel about his literary hero, Henry Miller. My phase was at its zenith. One day Miller, dead a half dozen years by then, walks into my fictional disc jockey’s apartment and strikes up a conversation, just like that. The two become fast friends. Pandemonium ensues.
My working title for the novel was The Colossus of Music City, a nod to The Colossus of Maroussi, still one of my favorite Miller books. One editor who turned down the manuscript wrote that my ghostly version of Miller “is certainly a lovable character – like a favorite uncle who drinks too much and whores around.” He may have been lovable, but not lovable enough. The novel failed to sell.
My own private Henry Miller Library.
“The most boring businessman you can imagine.”
My Henry Miller phase began to fade after that. I’d read more than a dozen of his books – fiction and non-fiction, famous and obscure, wise and pedantic – before coming to the last straw, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
It was begun in 1941, after Miller had enjoyed a richly prolific decade. Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring came steaming straight from the gutters of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Paris after Tropic of Cancer. Then it was on to Greece, where Miller wrote a sun-splashed ode to the sensuous life and a bon vivant named Katsimbalis. It is, along with Cancer, my favorite of Miller’s books. In Paris and Greece he was living off the cuff, far from his despised hometown and homeland, and as a result the writing was unfettered and full of joy.
But Europe was sliding into the abyss and Miller narrowly slipped from under the gathering war clouds and returned, reluctantly, to the U.S. The gloom descended as soon as he boarded the American boat in Piraeus. “I was among the go-getters again,” he wrote, “among the restless souls who, not knowing how to live their own life, wish to change the world for everybody.”
After arriving in New York, he decides to take a cross-country road trip and record his impressions of a country he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. Face-to-face again with his countrymen, his guts get all wadded up and the writing becomes pinched and cranky. Worse, Miller makes the fatal mistake of buying into the claptrap that the artist is some sort of exalted figure, entitled to special treatment, immune to the rules and responsibilities that govern the rest of society:
Like every other big city in America New Orleans is full of starving or half-starved artists. The quarter which they inhabit is being steadily demolished and pulverized by the big guns of the vandals and barbarians from the industrial world… When the beautiful French Quarter is no more, when every link with the past is destroyed, there will be the clean, sterile office buildings, the hideous monuments and public buildings, the oil wells, the smokestacks, the air ports, the jails, the lunatic asylums, the charity hospitals, the bread lines, the gray shacks of the colored people, the bright tin lizzies, the stream-lined trains, the tinned food products, the drug stores, the Neon-lit shop windows to inspire the artist to paint. Or, what is more likely, persuade him to commit suicide.
The only thing missing from this unimaginative litany is cellophane.
Years after I read the book I learned that Miller had neglected to mention a telling encounter he had on his trip across the country. His editor in New York had arranged for him to visit Eudora Welty at her home in Jackson, Miss., and Miller took it upon himself to write her a letter in advance, letting her know that he could put her in touch with “an unfailing pornographic market” that paid a dollar a page. What would possess a man to make such an offer to a very proper Southern lady? I can only assume it was the bad boy’s eagerness to shock, to uphold the naughty reputation cemented by the still-banned but widely circulated Tropics books.
Whatever his reasoning, the visit to Jackson was a disaster and there is no mention of it in the book. As Welty later said, “We drove around in the family car. I took him all around. He was infinitely bored with everything.” After Miller left town, Welty called him “the most boring businessman you can imagine.” Businessman. Ouch.
“Must We Burn Henry Miller?”
A lot of women readers besides Eudora Welty have had trouble with Miller’s sexual candor, seeing it not as a badge of liberation but as the demeaning handiwork of a sexist at best, a misogynist at worst. By the time my Henry Miller phase came and went, he and his work had already been fed through the meat grinder by second-wave feminists, most notably Kate Millett in her 1970 book Sexual Politics, in which she castigates Miller along with D.H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer. “Miller is a compendium of American sexual neuroses,” Millett wrote, “and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions, but in having had the honesty to express and dramatize them.”
I agree. I suspect Miller agreed too. Erica Jong, author of the very Miller-esque novel Fear of Flying, definitely agrees. In an essay called “Must We Burn Henry Miller?” in her 1993 book The Devil at Large, Jong argues that Miller was not an enemy of women in general and feminists in particular. “Ultimately,” Jong writes, “Miller can be a stronger force for feminists than for male chauvinists. His writing consistently shows a ruthless honesty about the self, an honesty that even women writers would do well to emulate, because honesty is the beginning of all transformation.” Then Jong poses a rhetorical question to her fellow feminists: “Shall we burn Henry Miller? Better to emulate him. Better to follow his path from sexual madness to spiritual serenity, from bleeding maleness to an androgyny that fills the heart with light.”
While Millett and Jong seem to have touched on the essence of Miller’s achievement and his worth, his place in the pantheon of American writers has never been fixed, which might be a good thing, something Miller himself would have approved of.
Steve Von, a psychoanalyst who will be part of a panel discussion at this week’s festival in Brooklyn, put it this way in an e-mail: “Henry Miller is a strange character in modern literature: both more and less popular than he seems. At first ignored, then outlawed, then celebrated, then forgotten, then remembered. He seems universally known, almost old hat, and yet he still has not been accepted by the academy.”
Now we’re getting close. Once so scandalous that he was outlawed, Miller is now old hat. How much the world has changed – and what a big part he played in changing it, for better and for worse.
Henry Miller did me several huge favors. He taught me that a novel can be whatever a novelist has the courage and the talent to conjure. He taught me that there’s something noble about stepping off the American treadmill, a lesson that’s more valuable today than ever before. He taught me that my native distaste for governments, authority, religions, taboos, cops, saviors, and salesmen puts me in good company.
Was Miller a great writer? I don’t know and I don’t care. He wrote one great book, a few very fine ones, a fair number of mediocrities and some outright junk. Not at all a bad life’s work for any writer. In the end, strange to say, the work matters less to me than the man who wrote it – or, more precisely, what that man had to go through to get it written. There, to me, lies greatness.
Images courtesy the author.