THE TITLE OF JAY Martin's new biography of Henry Miller, All Things Merry and Bright , which comes from Miller's story "The Tailor Shop," couldn't have been better chosen. Miller had a repeated and uncanny ability to overcome crisis after crisis in his life. Instead of being scarred by his work's rejection in France, England, and this country, he took a philosophical stance that it was only a matter of time before he would achieve the renown he felt was due him.
All but 65 pages of Martin's biography deal with Miller's literary years, 1919 to 1964, which are divided into three section, "New York," "Paris," and "Passage to America." The primary focus of the "New York" section is Miller's life with his first and second wives, Beatrice and June, the basis for his trilogy The Rosy Rucifixion , and his various jobs, especially his work at the "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company" (Miller's name for Western Union) that provides his best material in Tropic of Capricorn . As Miller has himself noted, however, the most important years of his life were these he spent in Paris. And in the second section of the biography, Martin examines Millerhs life in the Villa Seurat and in Clichy, his relationships with June and Anais Nin, and his writing and publication of Tropic of Cancer . The final part of the biography deals with Miller's return to America in 1940, his journey across the continent, and his settlement in Big Sur.
Through his narrative of these three periods in Miller's life Martin seeks to establish Miller's relationship with American letters, a relationship that Miller himself has often dismissed. Martin demonstrates Miller's literary ties with Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, and indicates how Miller's own themes were a natural outgrowth from those of his literary predecessors. From Franklin, Miller established a "work schedule" and began to write in the autobiographical vein; from Whitman he took a spiritual bond and a strength that led him to feel a oneness with his world; and his transcendental beliefs were nourished by Emerson and Thoreau. By tracing these bonds between Miller and his literary ancestors, Martin establishes him as an American romantic, not merely the satirist who, having been rejected, mocked his country's failings.
Although Martin has made some fine critical insights into Miller's place in American literature, he has unsuccessfuly presented Miller's life itself. Martin says at the outset that one must separate Miller's factual life from the fictional world depicted in his autobiographical writings, but he has failed to do so, and seems so intrigued by the Miller "myth," with the Henry Miller projected in Miller's own writings, such as Tropic of Cancer, The Rosy Crucifixion , and the other material that comprises the autobiographical history of Miller, that he seldom breaks through to the real man.
Martin has scarcely dealt with many important facets of Miller's early life: his relationships with his parents, his sister Lauretta Anna, or his devotion to his grandfather, whose name, Valentin Nieting, Miller has repeatedly used as a pseudonym. And he has little new to say on the man's relationships with his lovers, his friends, or his times.
Martin, evidently, was forewarned of the pitfalls in his biographical task. When the two men met, Martin quotes Miller as having said:
"There really isn't anything that anyone can say about me. I've written my own biography, you know. What good would it do to go around talking to my friends? Besides none of my friends knew everything about me; this one knew one part of my life and this one another, but none of them knew it all.
"Naturally, I haven't told the whole truth in any of my books.... Much of what I say in my life I've really created, and much of my real life I've left out. No one will ever find this out...."
One need only compare Miller's description in Tropic of the debasement and filth of his Paris life with Anais Nin's description in her diary of Henry as a "perfect Dutch housekeeper, to realize that Miller often misrepresented the facts in his books -- that there is often little connection between the fictionalized Miller and the real man.
One is left with the realization that at this point, the closest we can come to knowing Henry Miller is to read his fictional autobiographies, for only in these works can the reader experience the flavor of Miller's Paris, New York, and Big Sur. Martin's biography, while being a gallant attempt at reexploring this world, pales beside it.