Initially published in 1936, Black Spring was banned in the U.S. for almost 30 years as obscene, suffering the same fate as Tropic of Cancer, which was published two years earlier, and Tropic of Capricorn, which was published two years later. It was only as a result of Grove Press’s sheer doggedness in the early 1960s in appealing the obscenity findings that the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned them, and declared Miller’s works to be literature in 1964.
Like Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller is a writer whose prose is filled with poetry. You can pick up any of his books, flip them open to any page, start reading, and find yourself enthralled. Although Miller’s genius was immediately recognized in Europe, where his books were widely available, he got a bad rap in the U.S., and not only from the obscenity charges. Once people in the U.S. were actually able to get hold of his books, it wasn’t long before the critics started labeling him racist and sexist. Many book lovers to this day have never read him, believing him to be some kind of monster.
Miller may, in fact, have been a monster, but if he was, we’re all monsters. Miller was almost supernaturally honest about his thoughts, feelings and opinions. He had an access to his thoughts and feelings that most people never have.
I first read Black Spring in 1967, immediately after devouring Tropic of Cancer. I was nineteen years old, had dropped out of college after my freshman year, and was living in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district where I’d gone to be a hippie. So what the hell did I know about literature? What the hell did I know about life? Of course, I thought I knew just about everything. But Miller taught me I didn’t know as much as I thought, and one thing I really didn’t know beans about was how to write.
I read Miller’s books with a ballpoint pen in hand, underlining sentences, phrases, sometimes paragraphs and even whole pages. I wanted to mimic his style, his phrasing, his structures.
A 50-page chapter in Black Spring about his life in his father’s tailor shop when Miller was 21 consists primarily of descriptions of the characters who peopled this world and provides a memoir of astonishing power. Many of these memories are touching, many are funny, but in sketch after sketch, in addition to the humor, we find tragedy—death, disease, poverty, betrayal, abandonment. And throughout this memoir of horrors, at regular intervals, Miller repeats the phrase (always in italics): “Always merry and bright!” (This same device was later used brilliantly by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in his 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse Five, where he repeats the phrase “So it goes,” following each morbid scene.)
Black Spring, like so many of the “novels” I like best, is not so much a novel as a memoir. There’s no plot, just a bunch of anecdotes loosely woven together with not much more than Miller’s style. Miller dedicated Black Spring to Anais Nin, his lover at the time. It was Nin who’d put up the money for Miller to get his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, published, and he was later instrumental in getting her writing published. This was back when the publishing industry was dominated by dick-lit, and anyone who said “chick-lit” was probably offering you a piece of gum. Ironically, Anais Nin has since been canonized by the feminists, who typically demonize Miller. But Henry Miller and Anais Nin remained lifelong friends. As an artist who wrote erotic fiction–almost unheard of for women of that time–Nin apparently had less of a need to try to remake men than many later feminists. Nin died in 1977, Miller in 1980.
Here’s a passage from Black Spring where Miller 1936 sounds a lot like Ginsberg 1956.:
Love and murder, I feel it coming with the dusk: new babies coming out of the womb, soft pink flesh to get tangled up in barbed wire to scream all night long and rot like dead bone a thousand miles from nowhere. Crazy virgins with ice-cold jazz in their veins egging men on to erect new buildings and men with dog collars around their necks wading through the muck up to the eyes so that the czar of electricity will rule the waves. What’s in the seed scares the living piss out of me: a brand new world is coming out of the egg, and no matter how fast I write, the old world doesn’t die fast enough.
As I plunge beyond the cemetery wall, where the last dilapidated urinal is gurgling, the whole of my childhood comes to a lump in my throat and chokes me. Wherever I have made my bed I have fought like a maniac to drive out the past. But at the last moment it is the past which rises up triumphantly, the past in which one drowns. With the last gasp one realizes that the future is a sham, a dirty mirror, the sand in the bottom of the hourglass, the cold, dead, slag from a furnace whose fires have burned out.
I’ve been reading this book for 45 years.