Book Review: Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller by Mary V. Dearborn

Although Henry Miller is notorious for the explicit sex in his novels, I was drawn to his work because of his literary exuberance, the celebration of his life despite his poverty and hard circumstances, and his use of his own life experiences in his writings.  I had started my own literary apprenticeship in science fiction and fantasy, but upon my discovery of Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Henry Miller I became drawn more towards living raw life as a path to literary art.  I headed out on the road to break the stalemate stifling me as a writer, and as a result found my literary voice somewhere along the way.

My first Miller discovery was “Tropic of Cancer,” although I can’t remember how I came across it.  I remember that the vitality of the writing hit me like a thunderbolt, and over the next several years, I read most of Miller’s other work.  His writings do not bind the story of his life together, though.  They are like isolated snapshots that do not give the overall picture, so I have always been on the lookout for a good Miller biography.  In The Strand bookstore in New York I came across a memoir of Miller by the Hungarian photographer Brassai, who was an acquaintance of Miller’s in Paris in the 1930s, but Brassai’s book is not so much a biography as a series of personal reminiscences.  So when I recently came across “Happiest Man Alive” in a used bookstore in Seattle, I decided to give it a try.

Although this book did manage to give me a coherent picture of the chronological details of Henry Miller’s life, it is not the comprehensive biography I am looking for.

The first problem, before one even opens the book, is the abysmally poor cover.  The title is from the beginning of the book “Tropic of Cancer,” in which Miller exclaims, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes.  I am the happiest man alive.”  It was written in the spirit of literary exaggeration, as Miller was then going through an exceedingly dismal period of his life, but it referred to his awakening as a writer, the finding of his voice, the thrill of creativity.  It’s really a fine title to a book on Miller as a literary artist whose realistic and surrealistic autobiographical works shattered literary conventions of the era.  The drab cover, however, has a black and white picture of an aging Henry Miller in a white tee-shirt, with a slight paunch and a bemused or even sour expression.  It’s a portrait of anything but a happy man.  And the cover copy promises that the book is “studded with juicy tidbits” from Miller’s life.  Not a good sign at all.

I gave it a try anyway, and there are good sections in it, especially near the end, where the author describes Miller’s last years in Big Sur and Pacific Palisades, after he found in old age the recognition he had sought for so long.  Miller’s book on Big Sur does not supply the story of the entire time he was there, and by the time he lived in Pacific Palisades, finally relatively wealthy after the decades-long ban of his most important works in the United States, he had stopped writing significant works.

Before I mention specific problems with this biography, I want to make a general observation.  As I read along, the main problem, as I saw it, was that the writer did not really understand Miller’s writing, what it meant to him and what it did for him.  The writing is what ultimately freed him and gave him resurrection after his “Rosy Crucifixion.”  As for particulars, Miller generally had an unpleasant boyhood in New York, but rather than point out, as Miller himself does in his reminiscences of the era, how his boyhood in the streets shaped his later writings, the author indulges in sexual innuendo and her personal opinion on how his youthful experiences shaped his sexual attitudes.

Another huge gap in the biography is the almost total disregard the author has for the time Miller spent in Greece after he left France and before he returned to the States.  I expected a chapter at least, but the author dispenses with it in two pages.  She states that in her opinion the time in Greece was insignificant, although Miller claimed that it was one of the most important times of his life, that it brought him closure over certain aspects of his past, that it brought him a spiritual awakening and a sense of peace.  The book that came out of his Greek experience, “The Colossus of Maroussi,” is one of Miller’s most important works, and a book that many readers consider their favorite of all Miller’s books.

In the early stages of reading this book I wrote some notes about it.  I almost stopped reading and tossed it in the recycle bag, and in a way the notes kept me going and gave me an excuse and some material to write about later.  Here was a book portraying the so-called happiest man alive, and it was more akin to a dentist’s drill chewing into a raw nerve.  Instead of providing an invigorating experience, which Miller’s work always does, it was like an endless heap of misery.  It misses the point of why someone would want to read a biography of Henry Miller.  There are many memoirs and biographies of those who spent sordid times in this or that desolate city around the world.  The point is that the writing enabled him to rise above that.  A biographer should not just dish out raw facts – and especially not raw facts combined with random personal opinions – but rather seek to give a sense of the soul of the person behind those facts.  A person’s life is not just a string of statistics and occurrences; those are just the shell that masks the spirit, and it is the spirit, the real Henry Miller, the Miller one can discover in the finest passages of his prose – which, by the way, are usually not the overtly sexual ones – that readers of a Miller biography seek.

While reading this biography of Henry Miller I happened to have a chance to see the recent Oscar-winning movie “Birdman,” and the film gave me the perfect metaphor to illustrate what I wanted to say about this book.  In the film, an actor portrayed by Michael Keaton attempts to revive his career and do some serious artistic work by writing, directing, and acting in a Broadway play.  However, he is haunted by the spirit of the Birdman superhero character he portrayed in several films and became famous for.  There are surrealistic sequences in which the Birdman spirit speaks to him, he uses telekinesis to move objects, and he flies like a bird over the streets of New York.  In the end, and I’m sorry for the spoiler for those who haven’t seen the film but it’s imperative to my point, the actor is in a hospital room several floors above the street, he opens a window, the camera moves away to the door as his daughter enters the room.  She looks out the open window and down, as it appears that he has leapt to his death, but then she gazes upward, and smiles.  The implication is that he is really flying.

That’s what the author of this biography of Henry Miller fails to grasp.  Without his writing he was just another street urchin turned vagabond and beggar.  With his writing, he learned to fly.

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