Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist, essayist, and short-story writer
December 26, 1891
New York, New York
June 7, 1980
Pacific Palisades, California
Creator of a first-person style that deftly mixes fact, philosophy, and fantasy, Henry Valentine Miller was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. His father, Heinrich, drank heavily; his mother, Louise, was stern and domineering; his only sibling, Lauretta, was mentally handicapped. Miller spent most of his youth in Brooklyn, living in Williamsburg from 1892 to 1900 and Bushwick from 1901 to 1907. An earnest reader, he enjoyed close friendships with neighborhood boys but felt inhibited among his female peers. In 1909 he entered the City College of New York but soon left. After beginning work as a cement company clerk, he embarked on a rigorous physical regimen that included pacing cyclists on their weekend races. In the years that followed Miller moved from job to job, meeting many people, including the anarchist Emma Goldman during a trip west. Upon his return to New York, he worked in his father’s tailor shop. In 1917 Miller married the pianist Beatrice Sylvas Wickens; their child, Barbara, was born two years later. In 1920 he began a four-year stint as the employment manager of Western Union.
Frustrated in an unhappy marriage, Miller became infatuated with June Edith Smith, whom he met in a dance hall in 1923; the following year he left Western Union, divorced Beatrice, married June, and tried to develop his literary skills. During the emotionally turbulent years that followed, he and June eked out a bohemian existence, earning money through a variety of schemes. In an outburst of creativity in 1927 Miller sketched the notes that formed the basis of Tropic of Capricorn and the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion. In 1930 Miller left June in the United States and embarked on his second visit to Europe, eventually arriving in Paris; he and June were divorced by proxy in 1934. That same year he received world attention as a result of the publication of Tropic of Cancer. Besides garnering much praise for him, the work gained worldwide notoriety for itself and Miller because of its sexual frankness (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, The Rosy Crucifixion, and other works by Miller were banned in the United States and Great Britain until the 1960’s). During this period Miller wrote the epistolary Aller Retour New York, a scathing account of a visit to Manhattan, and the wide-ranging correspondence with Michael Fraenkel that comprised the Hamlet books. He also began his close relationship with Anaïs Nin, who provided him with financial and emotional support and sparked his interest in D. H. Lawrence. Henry Miller.
Tropic of Capricorn, Miller’s most stylistically complex work, appeared in 1939. Many readers in the United States who did not first encounter Miller’s writing via smuggled editions of his books did so through the collection The Cosmological Eye, which included his short story “Max” as well as an essay on director Luis Buñuel’s film L’âge d’or (1930). Leaving France in 1939, Miller traveled to Greece, where he visited Lawrence Durrell and met raconteur George Katsimbalis, a kindred spirit whom he dubbed the Colossus of Maroussi. His book by the same title is often cited as his greatest work. In 1944 Miller moved to Big Sur, California, and married Janina M. Lepska, with whom he had two children before their divorce in 1954. Miller then married Eve McClure; the two were divorced in 1962.
In 1957 Miller was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Sciences; in 1960 he served as a judge at the Cannes International Film Festival. Grove Press first published Tropic of Cancer for distribution in the United States in 1961; subsequent legal action established the company’s right to bring Miller’s banned writings to a receptive public. In 1962, Miller established a home in Pacific Palisades, California, where he lived until his death in June 1980. There he reaped the pleasures and difficulties of his fame, lending his support to artists, small presses, and literary magazines while pursuing his interests in nonfiction writing and watercolor painting. His unhappy fifth and last marriage, to Hiroki “Hoki” Tokuda, lasted from 1967 to 1978. Miller appeared in Warren Beatty’s film Reds (1981) and served as the focus of several documentaries and recordings. Miller's final, semiautobiographical novel, Moloch; Or, This Gentile World, which was published posthumously in 1992, is a fictionalized account of his first marriage.
Miller believed that the full value of his work would not be appreciated during his lifetime, since the restricted distribution of many of his writings focused attention on the scandalous aspects of his genius rather than its overall substance. The misleading attribution by Grove Press of the pornographic Opus Pistorum (1983; also known as Under the Roofs of Paris) to Miller, who penned only a small portion of the work, exemplifies the difficulties engendered by his notoriety. In a literary era populated with portraits of paralyzed and pessimistic intellectuals, Miller employed his expressive first-person narrative voice, developed over a lifetime of compulsive letter writing, to celebrate spiritual growth and creativity.
In 1981, Miller's friend Emil White transformed his own home in Big Sur, California, into the Henry Miller Memorial Library to preserve Miller's literary and artistic legacy. Gradually, literary critics have also taken notice of Miller and published several volumes of interpretation and critical analysis on his work in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.