George Orwell and Henry Miller, two of the most influential writers of the 20th century, had a single brief encounter in Paris in Dec. 1936. It has intrigued and baffled scholars and fans of both writers since. At the time, neither was the household names they’d become. If Miller was known at all, it was for the scandal surrounding Tropic of Cancer than the contents of the book. Orwell had published Down and Out in Paris and London and some novels that had reached a small audience. When he passed through Paris that day in 1936, he was on his way to fight the fascists in Spain. Had he been killed, we’d never have Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. PKM revisits this encounter with the help of Miller biographer Mary V. Dearborn.
Just before Christmas 1936, George Orwell was headed to Spain to lend support to the republican cause in its fight against Gen. Franco’s fascist insurrectionists (an experience he would later detail in Homage to Catalonia). On his way there, he stopped in Paris, a city he knew well, having lived there eight years earlier when he was still Eric Blair (an experience detailed in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, published, to little fanfare, three years earlier).
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, audiobook version:
In addition to picking up some necessary travel documents for his Spanish trip, Orwell wanted to meet an expatriate American writer named Henry Miller who’d been living in Paris since 1930. Orwell had read a smuggled copy of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and reviewed it kindly in the New English Weekly the year before. When Tropic of Cancer’s follow-up, the equally controversial Black Spring, was published in June 1936, Orwell reviewed that as well for the New English Weekly, praising the book’s energy, its focus on common people and its sexual frankness. In the meantime, a friendly correspondence sprung up between the two writers.
Though Orwell and Miller would spend only a few hours in each other’s company that day (Dec. 23, 1936)—Orwell had to catch a midnight train to the Spanish border—the encounter has to rank, at least in retrospect, as one of the more fascinating in modern literary history. Here were two relatively unknown writers who’d become, by the time of Orwell’s death in 1950, among the century’s most influential and distinctive voices. Though both were at the peak of their writing powers in 1936, it would be years before the world caught up with them—in Miller’s case, partly due to his books being banned for “obscenity”.
A great play, novel or screenplay could be written just on this one encounter, as brief as it was—maybe call it “When George Met Henry: Paris 1936,” with music composed by John Cale. As it happens, the only firsthand account of the meeting was written by Miller’s friend and boon companion, Alfred Perles (aka “Joey”). His version, written many years later, appeared as a short interlude in a longer memoir, My Friend Henry Miller (1955).
Orwell and Miller could not have been more different. For one thing, the age difference was striking: Orwell was 33, Miller was 45, though the former seemed the older, more “adult,” of the two. Then, there was the matter of their physical statures. Orwell was tall, rail thin, almost emaciated, and already dogged by lung ailments that would eventually kill him (getting shot in the neck in Spain a few months later didn’t help). He had the manners and bearing of an Eton-educated British intellectual who’d fallen on hard times (all of which was true). Miller, on the other hand, was a wiry, exuberant, brash and blunt American with a thick Brooklyn accent who barely finished high school and never went to college. Despite the relative poverty of his Villa Seurat life, he was healthy, well-fed and strong, probably from his incessant walking around the city.
Their writing styles differed, too. Orwell’s prose was as clear as a mountain stream, precise and unflinching (as he put it in a much-anthologized essay, “Why I Write,” he had “a power of facing unpleasant facts”). Miller’s writings wandered willy-nilly across the page, in the same manner that he spoke…soliloquizing rapturously about some arcane metaphysical matter then bitterly decrying the stupidity of civilization and most human enterprise, wavering between extremes of pacifism and universal love and misanthropy and nihilism.
As for their politics, Orwell was an idealist and a polemicist, obsessive about how language could be wielded to help create a better world—or at least decry fascism and totalitarianism. Miller was completely apolitical, even naïve about politics, and he had a daydreamer’s view of how the world should be run. As he wrote to his friend Lawrence Durrell around this same time, Miller said he could solve “the whole damn problem” of Germany’s rising Nazi threat if he were given five minutes alone with Hitler—he’d simply get old Adolf to laugh (why didn’t Gandhi, or Neville Chamberlain, think of this?).
Miller threw down the gauntlet in Tropic of Cancer when he wrote, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
Despite the fact that Miller, at 45, was twelve years Orwell’s senior, his perception of the world was child-like—blissfully oblivious and self-centered. In “Inside the Whale,” an essay published four years later, Orwell wrote, “What most intrigued me about [Miller] was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot…my ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney.”
Perles, in his account years later, was more generous to both parties: Theirs’ was “the difference between East and West…Miller was vulnerable and anarchic, expecting nothing from the world at large. Orwell was tough, resilient and politically minded, ever striving in his way to improve the world.”
So, in one corner, we had George Orwell, the self-denying ascetic willing to risk his life for a cause. And in the other, we had Henry Miller, whose (not entirely accurate) image was of a hedonist on the prowl for wine, women, song and a good meal, preferably on someone else’s dime. A heavyweight clash, to be sure, and one that pitted the forces that would shape the rest of the century—individual freedom vs. totalitarian control, engagement in the world vs. detachment from it.
Orwell’s idealism and “power of facing unpleasant facts” were precisely why he was on his way to Spain, to fight and possibly die for the cause of democracy. When he told Miller about his plans, the live-in-the-moment American’s first impulse was to try to talk him out of going. To Miller, Orwell’s mission was pointless. Orwell’s first biographer, Bernard Crick, described the scene this way: “They discussed ‘liberty’. To Miller, it was something entirely personal, to be defended against whimsical beliefs in public obligations and responsibilities and civilization was, in any case, doomed to take a nasty turn for the far worse whatever brave boy scouts like Orwell did about it…To Orwell, liberty and democracy went together and, among other things, guaranteed the freedom of the artist.”
According to Perles’ account of their meeting, Orwell told Miller that he still felt guilty for having spent five years as a member of the British Imperial Police in Burma (when he was Eric Blair). “Having undergone all that he had, why, [Miller] wondered, did Orwell choose to punish himself still further?”
Orwell, Perles continued, believed “that where the rights and very existence of a whole people are at stake, there could be no thought of avoiding self-sacrifice. He spoke his convictions so earnestly and humbly that Miller desisted from further argument and promptly gave him his blessing.”
Miller also gave the ill-clad Orwell a corduroy jacket, genially calling it his “contribution to the republican cause.” With a laugh, he also warned Orwell that the jacket was not “bullet proof but at least it’ll keep you warm.” (This proved prophetic when Orwell was nearly killed by a sniper in Spain).
Years later, when Orwell was in a London hospital for lung ailments, Miller wrote him a friendly letter: “Terribly sorry to hear of your illness. You seem to have tough luck indeed. And yet one feels confident somehow that you will survive everything and anything—even the plague! Perhaps all you need is rest—stop thinking and worrying about the external pattern. One can only do his bit—you can’t shoulder the responsibilities of the whole world…Do nothing! You’ll find it’s very difficult at first—then it becomes marvelous and you get to really know something about yourself—and through yourself the world. Everyone is micro- and macrocosm both. Don’t forget that.”
It’s easy enough to make a case for George Orwell in 2021—after all, we are living in the world Orwell warned us against, and interest in his books and worldview only skyrocketed during the nightmarish years of Trump and Brexit. But how does one make a case for Henry Miller in the year of our lord 2021, forty years after his death and nearly a century after he wrote his best-known, and still brutally funny and shocking “novel” Tropic of Cancer?
It is not such an easy task, largely because all of the following not-so-nice things about Miller are true: He was, as a young man, a mooch, work shirker, and layabout and would become something of a lecher as an old man. He could be cruel, harsh, even violent (in word, if not in deed). He was a cad to his first wife and a pimp to his second, the infamous muse June who served as both his destroyer and savior. Indeed, even his famous “exile” in Paris would not have happened if June hadn’t shoved him out the door with a paid ticket on a steamship in 1930—and not before his boyhood pal Emil Schnellock gave the perpetually broke “Val” some money.
Henry & June, film by Philip Kaufman (1990), trailer, based on the relationship between Miller and his wife:
When Miller arrived in Paris, he was out of his depth. He had no contacts there and spoke only the most broken of French that, with his Brooklyn accent, more than likely made native speakers laugh in his face. He had no money, few prospects and no plan whatsoever. He carried only a few clothes, some unpublished manuscripts and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. By all outward appearances, he was a failure, a virtually unemployable washout at age 38. He wasn’t “going West, young man,” as America’s manifest destiny demanded; he was headed in the opposite direction with his tail between his legs, leaving the so-called New World for the Old, like a reject, something America coughed up, spat out and jettisoned overboard.
And yet….the survival instinct, life force and artistic integrity that got him through these travails are the source of Henry Miller’s greatness, the things that made him one of the most provocative and influential writers in the 20th century, paving the way for the Beats, hippies, punks, slackers and all other bohemian offshoots. Miller threw down the gauntlet in Tropic of Cancer when he wrote, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
That statement of intent, which could serve as Miller’s lifelong artistic philosophy, stands alongside Oscar Wilde’s earlier similarly self-defining credo, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” More importantly, Miller presaged Jack Kerouac’s gauntlet-tossing line in On the Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles…” (To make the link more direct, Miller would write a preface to Kerouac’s 1958 novel, The Subterraneans)
A direct line can be drawn from Walt Whitman (another Brooklyn native) to Arthur Rimbaud to D.H. Lawrence to Henry Miller. And from Henry Miller, there’s a direct line to Jack Kerouac and Patti Smith and Bob Dylan and Henry Rollins and on and on and on…. The closest any contemporary writer comes to Miller may be Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer whose multi-volume My Struggle is an international publishing sensation—like Miller, Knausgaard’s only story is his own life.
So, how do you make a case for Henry Miller in 2021?
We turned to historian Mary V. Dearborn, author of the best of the many Miller biographies (Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller).
“I still read Miller, just as I still read Orwell,” said Dearborn, who has also published acclaimed biographies of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer (who, himself, published a book about Miller, called Genius and Lust).
Dearborn suggests that perhaps Orwell and Miller may have been closer in spirit than this brief 1936 encounter makes it appear.
“Orwell was a pacifist until the fall of France in 1940,” she said. “Temperamentally, maybe he liked the idea of just walking away, of not being l’homme engagé. He wasn’t just an anti-Fascist; his views developed out of a distaste for all wars. This is what first drew him to Alex Comfort, for example [Comfort was a physician, poet and ardent pacifist with whom Orwell later clashed], the pacifism, which Orwell believes is concomitant with anarchism (which it isn’t, really!).”
[Though they would become close friends, Orwell’s and Comfort’s differences are the subject of The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort, a fascinating book by Eric Laursen, Dearborn’s husband.]
Dearborn agrees that it’s probably easier to make a case for Orwell in 2021 than for Henry Miller. Still, she’d say the case for Miller is there to be made.
“First, there was his anarchism, which seems to be more and more compelling as time passes,” said Dearborn. “Henry Miller had no use for the state, period. He was, in some ways, a man of the 1920s rather than the ‘30s, the ‘political’ decade. This is part of the reason why I say in my biography of him that Miller arrived in Paris a decade too late. He also prized independence and individuality too much ever to be fundamentally sympathetic to the communism of the ‘30s or, later, the collective consciousnesses of the ‘60s.”
“Second, I think a good case can be made for Miller in terms of the kind of writing he did, even his style. He freed up American writing by grounding it in the vernacular.”
Though Miller was familiar with, even conversant about, the modernist writers of the 1920s—Joyce, Eliot, Pound, etc.—Dearborn says he came to see modernism as too constraining and formalistic.
“He liked the vernacular, in which he could actually say (not just mean) ‘Fuck you, Jack’,” she said. “He was really good at dialogue (something Hemingway really wasn’t), and his writing was vibrant and turbo-charged, really rare in the 1930s. Because of this sort of stuff, Miller was an essential precursor to the Beats. He functioned much like Celine did for the French.”
It’s not particularly helpful to “grade” Henry Miller by the MeToo standards of 2021, but it’s equally wrong and condescending to grade him on a curve, or let him off the hook. Dearborn approaches this thorny territory by taking a step back.
“As a historian, I do appreciate the clear record of misogyny we get in Miller,” said Dearborn. “It can also be said, for what it’s worth, that lots of men writers hated women more than he did. He used to say he couldn’t be anti-Semitic because he loved so many Jews—a fundamentally hollow and even offensive argument; the same way he (and Mailer) said he actually loved the women in his life. I don’t think much of this argument; he (nor Mailer) wasn’t particularly good to any of the women in his life. He was also a dubious ally because he was so into the ‘Band of Brothers’, frat-rat thing. Women breaking up that old gang of mine.”
Dearborn cites Anais Nin as an example of literary kinship with a woman that Miller was capable of nurturing.
“I really don’t like Anais Nin, but I imagine his relationship with her, especially as it devolved into friendship, is somewhat to his credit,” she said. “He did take her seriously as an ‘artist’.”
Dearborn also finds a silver lining to these male writers’ much-maligned sexism.
“On the other hand, I do think Miller, Mailer, and Hemingway were/are really important for the attention they bring to sex in America, what they tell us about relations between men and women—some of which they may have themselves shaped,” she said, citing Mailer’s controversial response to attacks by feminists, The Prisoner of Sex (1971). “[That book] can be read right alongside [Simone de Beauvoir’s] The Second Sex, for example. I think sexual explicitness, overall, benefits women and/or feminism.”
As for the fluctuating reputation of Miller in the decades since his death in 1980, she said, “Miller has more, not less, value literarily as time goes on. You could say he’s gone out of favor in this area, but I think it’s more that he points another way. The excesses of the ‘60s and ‘70s—[Terry Southern’s] Candy, for instance—weren’t for him, and certainly today’s writing, out of the M.F.A. programs, is downright antithetical to him.”
Dearborn is less fond of Miller’s writing after he returned to America in 1940—the several books published in trade paperback by New Directions.
“Though some 1960s writers gleaned a lot from Miller, his project was by and large done before he came back here,” she said. “Even as the Beats learned from him, he thought he had little in common with the Beats.”
Among his later published books, Dearborn makes an exception for Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.
“I love that book,” she said. “It returns me to the subject of anarchism. Miller’s fundamental sympathy with Conrad Moricand [a down-and-out French astrologer whose disastrous visit to Miller at Big Sur provides a large part of the book’s narrative] reminds us of the portrait of Max in a much better work, Max and the White Phagocytes. Miller is drawn to figures like Max and Moricand because he can find value in what they say and who they are, and he thinks a society should value who they are rather than casting them out. Part of what Miller hates about the modern world (and in part what drove him out of the U.S.) is that it can’t seem to treat Max or Moricand right. His anarchism, far more instinctive than explicitly political, said ‘when you treat Max badly, you damage me, too’.”
Dearborn closes her biography of Henry Miller, Happiest Man Alive, with these summary statements:
“For most of his adult life his greatest works remained unavailable in his own country, and largely unread. He enjoyed notoriety but not fame; he subsisted on handouts. Critical acclaim came only when he was an old man, when his life work was finished, when he hardly cared about writing any more. These years of his life stand as a scathing indictment of the way American society treats its iconoclastic artists. Unheralded, unreviewed, unappreciated, virtually unknown, he insisted on being heard. What he had to say may have been unpalatable. But as Miller wrote in defense of The Rosy Crucifixion—and the statement might apply to all of his best work—‘If it was not good, it was true; if it was not artistic, it was sincere; if it was in bad taste, it was on the side of life’.”
To learn more about Mary V. Dearborn and her books, visit:
Henry Miller is Not Dead (1996)-documentary written and directed by “Anonymous” (Joe Kishton), music by Laurie Anderson: