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?
The literary wild man Miller was sort of a cross between George Carlin and Marcel Proust, with a large dash of Hemingway, as is clearly demonstrated by this list, which features boys’ adventures, such as the works of G. A. Henty, “Robinson Crusoe,” and “The Three Musketeers,” together with Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Emerson, and Rimbaud. I believed Miller to be the real McCoy as far as intellectuals went, and here he was, saying that he loved “Huckleberry Finn” and “Alice in Wonderland”—just as I did, though he had read such a lot! And Miller was willing, too, to admit that he hadn’t yet read “Tom Jones,” though he still meant to. What a revelation. So here are my favorite books that Henry Miller introduced me to, all of which I can recommend most heartily:
“The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini” (a terrific liar, the very portrait of entertaining braggadocio).
“Looking Backward,” by Edward Bellamy (at which point I started caring about politics).
“Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky (the first novel to make me barf).
“The Decameron,” by Giovanni Boccaccio.
“Journey to the End of the Night,” by Louis-Ferdinand Celine (depressing! riveting).
“She,” by Rider Haggard (oh, man, “who must be obeyed”).
“The Magic Mountain,” by Thomas Mann (couldn’t make heads or tails of it yet, but there were certain stirrings).
“The Satyricon,” by Petronius.
“Gargantua and Pantagruel,” by Rabelais (so freaking weird).
“Letters to Theo,” by Vincent van Gogh.
“Star of the Unborn,” by Franz Werfel.
There is beauty as well as hatred in [Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’], and it deserves its place on the shelf. Yet the central question it poses was stupidly buried under censorship in the 1930s, and gleefully swept aside in the permissiveness of the 1960s. Kate Millet asked the question in the 1970s, but the effort to ignore it is prodigious. A new round of mythmaking is ignoring it once more. The question is not art versus pornography or sexuality versus censorship or any question about achievement. The question is: Why do men revel in the degradation of women?