Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Miller, Henry (1891–1980)
Author:
Panish, Jon
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Miller, a writer best known for works that explore sexuality and personal freedom through an innovative American autobiographical romanticism, expressed a lifelong admiration for and identification with Walt Whitman. Miller's earliest, and perhaps strongest, connection to Whitman derives from their shared origin in Brooklyn, New York. At various points in his life, moreover, Miller saw distinct parallels between his progress as a writer and Whitman's development. Early in his career, for example, when Miller's writing career floundered, he drew sustenance from the knowledge that Whitman also experienced early rejection. Also like Whitman, Miller printed his own earliest work and sold it door to door.

However, Miller's identification with Whitman transcended these similarities of life experience. Miller frequently referred to Whitman as one of the few American writers whose work had a discernible influence on his own writing. Miller was especially attracted to the generally unfettered self—free, wild, sexual, and emotional—that Whitman constructed in his poetry. Moreover, Miller admired Whitman's strategy of using his work to present the reader with himself: "who touches this [book] touches a man" ("So Long!"). Following Whitman's lead, Miller crafted his first book—Tropic of Cancer—as a fictional narrative that used an autobiographical self to explore the meaning of being "Henry Miller" in the early twentieth century.

Miller's essay "Walt Whitman" (1957) offers further insight into the connection Miller made between himself and Whitman. Miller's tribute to Whitman focuses on the poet's status as a "seer" (115). Noting that Whitman was never "understood . . . or accepted" by America and rejecting the notion that Whitman's "outlook" (116) is American, Miller instead lauds Whitman's "all-embracing" (115) vision, his worldliness, and his "unique view of [the] emancipated individual" (116). Miller, moreover, characterizes Whitman as an anarchist, a "pure phenomenon," a man who "does not know the meaning of hate, fear, envy, jealousy, rivalry" (117).

Bibliography

Ferguson, Robert. Henry Miller: A Life. New York: Norton, 1991.

Gottesman, Ronald, ed. Critical Essays on Henry Miller. New York: Hall, 1992.

McCarthy, Harold T. "Henry Miller's Democratic Vistas." American Quarterly 23 (1971): 221–235.

Martin, Jay. Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove, 1961.

———. "Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981. 115–117.


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