David Stephen Calonne
Critical Lives Series
London: Reaktion Books, 2014
Paperback. 224 p. ISBN 978-1780233444. £11.99
Reviewed by Jennifer Cowe
University of Glasgow
There can be few writers who provide more material and more contradictions for the potential biographer than Henry Miller. Much of Millerís most famous work is allegedly based on his real life experiences in New York and Paris, and as such many biographers have taken these works, specifically Tropic of Cancer (1934), Tropic of Capricorn (1939) and The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy (1949, 1953, and 1960) as primary source material. Miller, however, played with reality, dreams, fantasy and time within his novels and to use them as Ďfactí negates the experimental and revolutionary nature of Millerís style and creativity. David Stephen Calonneís new biography is quite unique in that it approaches Millerís life from the perspective of Millerís spirituality, examining Millerís life in relation to his growing interest in and adherence to the principles of Eastern philosophy.
Calonne shows how Millerís repulsion at the restraints that bourgeois life placed upon him stretched back to his childhood; his abusive relationship with his domineering mother, obsessed with the external appearance of probity; an alcoholic father and a mentally challenged sister. Miller turned to his school friends and petty criminals from his Brooklyn neighbourhood to provide the happiness he did not have at home. Calonne argues that these early years in many ways set the tone for Millerís life. Miller, in time, extrapolated these feelings onto American society as a whole, seeing it as representative of the stultifying, mechanised age which was the antithesis of wisdom in Eastern philosophy. He felt more at home with societal misfits and those living on the margins than with so-called upright members of the community.(1) Calonne demonstrates how this identification with outsiders continued into Millerís adult life with his failure to maintain gainful employment and his multiple attempts at marriage. Miller only really began to flourish as a writer when he moved to Paris, leaving America behind not only geographically but extricating himself from its Spenglerian stagnant, dead existence. This inability to find a meaningful existence in America led Miller to question his very sanity, but his suffering led him to question why he did not fit in and whether he even wanted to. Millerís disgust at the sheep-like mentality of the collective led to his discovery of the importance of the individual. Millerís study of varied philosophical and religious texts guided him to a new conceptualisation of how he wanted to live and the reality of his own responsibility in this. From his early manhood in New York, to Paris, to Big Sur and finally Pacific Palisades, Miller read and re-read the key texts of Zen Buddhism, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Vedanta and Perennial Philosophy, re-evaluating his life experiences from a spiritual perspective, gaining awareness and practicing Zen Buddhist acceptance as he went. Miller was able to utilise the same episodes and portray them differently in his novels, not because he was duplicitous or forgetful, but rather due to his changing levels of perception and the understanding he gained retrogressively from a Buddhist perspective. Calonne perfectly outlines how Millerís childhood, adolescence and early manhood led to his rejection of the traditional life model of American success and fed into a life-long questioning of how the individual might live in contentment and at peace.
It is refreshing to finally have a biography of Miller that does not perceive him as some kind of sexual deviant and thus emphasises his sexual escapades, as if this somehow gives the reader a deeper understanding of his work. Calonne does not fail to separate Miller the character from Miller the man. He shows a subtle understanding of Millerís complete oeuvre and highlights the literary experimentation implicit in Millerís work that is so easily overlooked. Calonne manages to relate the more unsavoury facts of Millerís life without either excusing them like Norman Mailer in Genius and Lust : A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller (1976) or slyly disapproving of them like Mary V. Dearborn in The Happiest Man Alive : A Biography of Henry Miller (1991). This clarity and lack of judgement is very in keeping with the prevailing premise within this biography, namely that Miller was a deeply spiritual man who sought to understand life through a growing adherence to Zen Buddhist principles. Calonne shows the various stages of Millerís spiritual journey through both his own novels and correspondence, but also through what Miller himself was reading. The reader can see how Millerís enthusiasm for Zen Buddhism grew over the course of his life, illustrated in his letters to friends and his reading lists. This is a well-researched, accessible biography that offers a fresh perspective on both Millerís life and how we frame and engage with his work.
(1) For an examination of the cult of the American outlaw in Millerís work see Turner, Frederick. Renegade: The Making of Henry Miller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
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