Book Review: Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur by Arthur Hoyle

I have to make something clear from the outset: I don’t read Henry Miller’s works very often anymore. However, when I was young, his writings were influential in propelling me out onto the road to find my own voice as a writer, along with the writings of Jack Kerouac, Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, and others. And with me, it was never about the bawdy and explicit sexual descriptions that got Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn banned for decades in the United States, England, and many other countries. For me it was all about the freedom, and of course Miller’s incomparably poetic flowing and intricately descriptive language. It was about his willingness to abandon everything else in pursuit of his dream of becoming a writer, his joyful poverty, and his literary fecundity despite extremely abject living conditions. If you are a writer, you write, despite the outward circumstances of your existence. And if your works are despised and rejected, you continue to write as best you can.

I’m not saying that Miller led an exemplary life in all respects; in fact, his personal life was often a disaster. He frequently made very bad choices regarding his finances and his relationships with women. The thing that drew me to this new biography was the fact that it focuses on the particular portion of his life when he returned from Europe and sought to reestablish himself in the United States, in his case in Big Sur, a remote, beautiful section of the California coast south of the San Francisco Bay area. The Tropics books had already been published in France and banned in the United States. He felt misunderstood and ignored as an author, yet he persevered in working on the three-volume autobiographical novel that was eventually published as the Rosy Crucifixion. I can relate to this; in fact, I’ve written my own memoir about my reactions in returning to the United States in America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad.

As I started reading Hoyle’s book, I was unsure about whether I really wanted to get into it or not. As I said, I don’t read Miller much anymore, and raising a family has caused my viewpoint to shift, or let’s say expand from the mindset I had when I first set out on the road to follow in the footsteps of my literary mentors. What drew me in was the portrait of a writer who was ignored despite his talent, who had to continually choose to keep working although he had strong societal and political forces arrayed against the books he was producing. I think that if Henry Miller were alive and writing today, he would have bypassed the traditional publishers that gave him so much grief and self-published his own work. He might have had a blog too as another means of putting his work out into the world. As it was, he felt very frustrated at the official thwarting of his literary endeavors for much of his life, and he only attained celebrity in his old age.

I emphasize again that much of Henry Miller’s personal life and literary output was far less than exemplary, and yet he made an important contribution to world literature in the liberating clarity of his idiosyncratic personal voice. I’m glad that I discovered him back when I did. He definitely was instrumental in setting free my own distinctive voice as a writer. And this book is an absorbing and interesting study of the struggles of a flawed but fascinating anomaly on the world literary scene.

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