Barney Rosset and Henry Miller

Books, Reading

I just watched a fascinating documentary called Obscene about the life of Barney Rosset, the one time operator of Grove Press which published the first U.S. editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Rosset and Grove Press were involved in the legal fight against censorship for the first three of these titles.

I plan on writing more about Obscene in general over at Tombrarian because I am going to nominate it for the notable videos committee. But I want to dwell a bit here about something Rosset says about Henry Miller:

I didn’t think of Henry Miller being particularly involved with sex. He just had contempt for this country that I shared. I never even noticed the fact that it was supposed to be sexually explicit or anything else and I still don’t, but it is an insulting book to everybody.

I particularly like this quote for a couple of reasons. One is that it has always annoyed me that people focus so much on the sex in Miller’s books. I recently re-read Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and I would be surprised if 10% of those books are about sex. There is so much else going on that I feel people are really missing the point if they look at them so narrowly.

The other reason is that Rosset points to Miller’s contempt for America. In re-reading the two Tropics, this aspect stood out to me more than ever. I think because a lot of what Miller critiques is still so much an issue. So much of the narrow-mindedness, anti-intellectualism, consumerism, puritanism, and lack of concern for the environment that he rails against in the 1930s are still issues today.

Another interesting point that Rosset raises briefly regards why he felt an initial connection to Tropic of Cancer. Rosset was taken my Miller’s description of his breakup with Mona and how Miller resolved, as Rosset says, that he “will exist without her.” At the time, Rosset was going through his own break up. I have long held that Mona (based on Miller’s wife June) leaving him is at the heart of Tropic of Cancer. There’s an essential sadness that is key to understanding why the character of Henry Miller behaves as he does and takes the philosophical journey that he does. All the sex in the book is intricatly tied to this event. The supposed sexual liberation of the book is tempered when viewed from this angle.

Re-reading the Tropics and being struck by Miller’s harsh critique of the U.S. led my back to Aller Retour New York, which is Miller’s long letter to his friend Alfred Perles which was published as a short book in Paris between the two Tropics and in the U.S. in 1945. The letter describes Miller’s visit to New York after he had been living in Paris. The letter is a long-reflection of many of the difficulties Miller has with the American way of life. One of his long-standing complaints is about how wasteful American’s are compared to the Europeans:

Everybody has a crease in his trousers and shoes highly polished. Nobody wears a last year’s hat, crisis or no crisis. Nobody is without a clean handkerchief softly laundered and wrapped in a seal packerchief. When you have your hair brushed by the barber he throws the brush away to be fumigated and wrapped in cellophane again. The cloth he puts around your neck is sent immediately to the laundry–by pneumatic tubes that deliver the following morning. Everything is a twenty-four-hour service, whether it is necessary or not. Your things come back so fast you don’t have time to earn the money to pay for this service you don’t need. If it rains you get your shoes shined just the same–because the polish is a protection against weather stains. You get trimmed coming and going. You are in the sausage machine and there is no way out–unless you take a boat and go somewhere else. Even then you can’t be sure because the whole fucking world is going a hundred percent America.

Feels awfully prescient for 1935.