This essay about Henry Miller in Paris is included in my new book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Henry Miller: Hungry, Homeless, Happy
There’s only one historical figure I’ve ever come across who claimed he was hungry, homeless, and happy simultaneously. Given the brashness of his personality and his legacy, it is not surprising that it was Henry Miller who declared that these circumstances colored his existence during his pivotal Paris years. As he roamed the streets of the city, he seesawed between the three states of being and admits he experienced them concurrently more often than not. He was sleeping on sofas and hanging out at cafés hoping a familiar face would stop in to treat him to a croque-monsieur and a glass of wine. In spite of this vagabondage, he claims he was genuinely content because he was writing in a way that excited him for the first time in his life.
He also maintained, at least early on, that he didn’t consider himself to be a writer. “I am but a man and I want to express myself completely and without constraints,” he told Brassaï, one of his closest friends, during a tirade one night. “I do not believe I am a writer. Nor do I have any ambition to write well or to have a pretty style…All I know is that there is a force in me that must express itself. So I stammer, I grope, I look for any and all means possible and imaginable.” His groping would turn the literary world on its ear after the publication of his first novel Tropic of Cancer, a book that was banned in America for nearly three decades after it was first published in Paris in 1934. Once Grove Atlantic released it in the U.S. in 1961, it sparked obscenity trials.
When I learned that his Paris diaries reside at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, I made it a point to reserve them so I could see his stammering firsthand. The notebooks are a revelation, as they serve as witnesses to his life in the city during the era when the Lost Generation and other struggling American writers flocked to Europe to live less expensively while having greater creative freedom. I became fascinated with the breadcrumbs Miller left me as I tracked him, moving between the beat-up notebooks he must have cherished and the novels he authored.
As he developed the material, his fascination bounces from street names to editorial cartoons and from articles to typed excerpts from books. He’s reading Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against the Grain, an excerpt of which is pasted onto a page opposite cartoons with bare-breasted and bare-assed women being accosted by men in suits. His crassness, which made him unsuitable for the American writing scene of this period, was showing itself on so many of the pages he filled with minutia.
He is cementing his presence on the Paris scene, pasting in newspaper clippings in which he is quoted, one of which notes his opinion that “Montparnasse is a great place” because “everyone likes to help a fellow who is broke.” Around this flows a derogatory passage about a man he has met, some of the scribbling heavily blotted out with dark swaths of pencil lead. The part that remains visible begins, “It’s true that I met him in the court of the Louvre, hungry and homeless.”
Brassaï would become Miller’s biographer, his chronicle of the author’s Paris years confirming just how poor Miller had been and how he refused to let this get him down: “He cleansed his soul by roaming the streets of Paris without a single sou in his pocket. In later years Henry often recalled the euphoria of his days en marge, on the fringes, fraught though they were with uncertainty and even misery. He was happy.” Brassaï credited Miller’s delight to his escape from New York and from his wife June.
As I flipped through the diaries, it occurred to me that he was likely content because he wasn’t thinking for a change; he was feeling. This was an important distinction for this novelist who had realized that being constrained by convention was what made him so unhappy in the States, something he could only fully see once he had escaped to Europe. “In Paris he was like a man released from prison, rubbing his eyes and pinching himself—was all this real?” wrote Brassaï. “His whole being radiated irrepressible optimism.” This was in spite of the fact that he owed money to a long list of people, which he illustrated on a page in his Paris diaries that chronicled his debts.
He was meeting lifelong friends like Alfred Perlès, Wambly Bald and Brassaï, who cut him no slack when it came to discussing his scrappy writing style. “When I begin to write, I feel like a breakwater has collapsed,” Miller retorted one evening when Brassaï was berating him for being long-winded. “Why would I want to stop the onslaught?” He was in the habit of pasting Wambly Bald’s newspaper column “La Vie De Bohème (As Lived on the Left Bank)” into his diaries, one of which, published on October 14, 1931, has Miller as the subject.
His handwritten note below it reads “Sketch done by Gyula Halász [the real name of his friend and biographer Brassaï] in Café de la Liberté opposite Metro “Edgar Quinet” on Rue de la Gaîté. As I stared at this page in the hushed atmosphere of the Beinecke reading room, it occurred to me that some of the pages in his books were original to the time he was first exploring Paris while others seemed to be constructed years later as he reminisced about his time there. He was covering earlier references with new entries and adding marginalia he deemed significant. It was as if he was creating a guidebook for his frame of mind as he birthed Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.
After reading about Miller’s life, it’s easy to see why, as he aged, he would want to reminisce about his time in Paris because the foundation underpinning everything that fed his pride was built during those years. “By the time he settled in Paris, Miller had been looking for his true writing self for some twenty years,” Brassaï wrote. “The desire to be a real writer haunted him like a ghost.” This, too, was evident on the diary pages in which I could see him developing greater awareness. He was so in awe of what was happening, he called the transformation a miracle.
During an interview in 1970, he told Georges Belmont, “There had to be a second time, a time when I was totally broke, desperate, and living like a vagrant in the streets to start to see and to live the real Paris. I was discovering it all at the same time that I was discovering myself.” This was a markedly different experience to his first trip to the city, which had been a disappointment because he was accompanied by June. Alone there during his return, the streets were his teachers and he flung himself at them with gusto. “Henry was an indefatigable walker, as absorbent as a sponge, and infinitely curious about people and things,” Brassaï wrote. “Everything he observed was recorded for future use—faces, movements, gestures, odors, passions, sins.”
About his love affair with being a flâneur, Miller wrote in his essay “Remember to Remember,” “There are scarcely any streets in Paris I did not get to know. On every one of them I could erect a tablet commemorating in letters of gold some rich new experience, some deep realization, some moment of illumination.” On one of the diary pages, he compares Paris with Brooklyn, his former hometown: “Paris goes to bed early. In N.Y. one grows accustomed (after midnight) to the pounding of drills, the clatter of the elevated, etc. In Paris one’s ears become sensitive to the music of the urinals, the drains (and the sound of American footsteps coming home drunk).”
He’s cataloging atmosphere: “Colored glasses in street lamps throwing most vivid grass greens and blood reds on pavement. Startling.” And he’s fleshing out scenes: “I’m nothing but a poor bum, but I’m not wicked yet.” In his biography, Brassaï dubs Miller’s early days in town his “bum” period because he was always on the lookout for that charitable soul who might take him in: “For many years he had only one permanent address: 11 Rue Scribe, the location of the American Express office.” Brassaï describes the vivacity with which he worked, even (and often) on an empty stomach: “To remember everything he saw, everything he felt, Henry worked like a man possessed.”
Expressing admiration for the lyrical nature of the French language, as he notes on one of the many pages in his diaries titled “Paris Notes,” Miller is itching to break new ground with his writing: “The simplicity of Gide versus Zola. Classicism vs. Realism, or Naturalism, or Romanticism. The style of Cocteau—superior to Gide’s…French presupposes clarity of thought. One simply cannot muddle along in this language as in English…I love the way the French pile up their adjectives, weave in their modifying clauses, put sonority into the line, give it rhythm…This is what I should like to do with English.”
And he’s on fire with inspiration: “A random jaunt through one little quarter is sufficient often to create such a glut of emotions that one is paralyzed with conflicting impulses and desires.” The tone of his Paris passages contrasts the spirit of his New York days, which is evident on one page in his diaries that holds a collage he made from scraps of paper on which he has scribbled notes, like this snippet written to June: “I suppose I ought to offer a prayer of thanks on the altar of the Goddess of Venus for your thoughtfulness in telephoning last night. This is not irony or cynicism!” In the margin, he has written, “Note attached to the poem in one of my desperate moods at Remsen Street—‘the furnished room overlooking the harbor’ from novel.”
The moment Anaïs Nin enters the picture, there is a significant change in the tenor of Miller’s entries. He has pasted two images of her eyes into the books and has added a typed excerpt from a letter he wrote to her on September 29, 1932. It begins, “Going home in the train had a tremendous surge of ideas, caused by seeing the houses lit up in early evening; their bleak barren ugly qualities impressed me, and yet the soft light, often in a red-papered room, with people quietly sitting at the window—like souls exposed (where were the curtains…why hadn’t the French used curtains?) affected me strongly, affected me with the sense of drama, universes of drama in a short stretch of train stops…”
Before Tropic of Cancer is published, Miller is sharing his work with others and listing their responses. One is from Walter Lowenfels, who sent Miller his feedback after he had read the first 50 pages in 1931: “Miller’s thesis is a knock-out. His book ought to be called, ‘I am the only man in the world that’s alive.’ I’ve read the first fifty pages and nothing has impressed me so much in years. His armor is impeccable. He eats. He defecates. He fornicates. He has wet dreams. Naturally, he copulates in the out-house…”
By the time Tropic of Cancer was released in September 1934, Miller’s life was more stable, thanks in part to the generosity shown to him by Nin. He set to work sending the book out as soon as it was published, his desire to know what others thought of it evident in his letters, such as one to Nin dated November 29, 1934, in which he wrote, “You know I just dispatched copies to Aldous Huxley & Ezra Pound—finally heard from them. And to Blaise Cendrars.”
In his biography, Brassaï notes how proud Miller was that Cendrars said, “he’d never read a book by an American, nor by any foreigner for that matter, with descriptions of Paris’s streets that could match Henry’s.” Miller would also tell Nin, “In the [Dorothy] Dudley letter about the book, copy of which I enclose, she said that Marcel Duchamp was up to see them recently and expressed unprovoked and unstinted admiration for the book, had great pleasure in reading it, etc.” As I finished thumbing through the last of his diaries, I was struck by how much of his narrative for Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn took root in their pages. It’s almost as if he wrote the stories there, the act of typing them a mere exercise in transferring them into a slightly more coherent framework.
Though I’m not a fan of his writing style, Miller’s diaries taught me several things: it’s important to be attentive to the discipline of observation if you are crafting a major work in which a backdrop is essentially a character, and no detail is too small or too mundane to warrant a writer’s notice. I used his books as a guide during a walking tour I dreamed up the last time I was in Paris and Miller’s details helped me see how much had changed during the past eight decades, a reminder that we are all valuable witnesses to a future-past during our time on earth if we choose to be.
Henry Miller: Hungry, Homeless, Happy © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. This essay is included in my latest book The Modern Salonnière. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose other books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.