Miller's Crossing

On the eve of World War II, American expat Henry Miller returned home in an effort to rediscover his native country. He called much of what he found The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.


Henry Miller hated America. Largely, he hated it because he was a talented but hugely unhappy man unable to overcome his continental prejudices. It is also possible, however, that he hated America because he saw all that it might be and simply wasn't.

A native of New York, Miller had been introduced to Europe by his unpredictable wife and muse, June Mansfield, and during his time in Paris in the 1930s he also became involved with Anais Nin. The famously intricate triangle of Miller, Mansfield and Nin soon set off a war of mutually assured destruction within his household; by the time Miller left for America, the homefront hostilities had ended, just as larger ones were beginning to threaten the European continent. Before he even crossed the ocean, he had begun embracing the idea of that most American of outings: the road trip. "I wanted to have a last look at my country," he wrote, "and leave it with a good taste in my mouth."

In his introduction, Miller professed a deep desire to reconcile with the country of his birth, a place that for him had meant only poverty and uncertainty. Without a trace of anything so pesky as self-awareness, he earnestly claimed that "if any one on earth were free of hatred, prejudice, bitterness, I thought it was myself." And then he sailed into New York harbor.

"It was a bad beginning," Miller wrote. "The sight of New York, of the harbor, the bridges, the skyscrapers, did nothing to eradicate my first impressions. ... I felt as I had always felt about New York -- that it is the most horrible place on God's earth." So much for second chances.

Miller's resultant travelogue, , is a strange, sometimes sour brew. His rather random visits -- St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Little Rock, Kenosha, Mobile, Albuquerque and so on -- string together a meandering trip, Miller's disdain being the most unifying factor. The truths that lie in his observations -- and he is not always wrong about America's chauvinism, lack of artistic culture, materialism, monstrous industrialism and cruelty to its own -- are too often eclipsed by his petulant tone. "I had to travel ten thousand miles before receiving the inspiration to write a single line," he remarked. "Everything worth saying about the American way of life I could put in thirty pages." There are moments when one almost wishes he had.

Happily, it's just about that time that a reader comes across his grandly poetic chapter detailing his visit to New Iberia's Weeks Hall and another expressing his admiration for New Orleans artist Dr. Marion Souchon. Louisiana, it turned out, was one of the first places Miller would admit to tolerating.

A thinker and a painter, Hall was an eccentric character. His odd life in his ancestral home, Shadows-on-the-Teche, appealed immensely to Miller, who was entranced by the physical beauty of the structure and its gardens: "I strolled back to the trellised garden house which lies on the banks of the Bayou Teche. The scene before my eyes was that of a Chinese painting. Sky and water had become one: the whole world was floating in a nebular mist. It was indescribably beautiful and bewitching. I could scarcely believe that I was in America."

He was no less impressed with Hall as an intellect and an artist. "In a sense it might be said of him that he had already completed his great work. He had transformed the house and grounds, through his passion for creation, into one of the most distinctive pieces of art which America can boast of. He was living and breathing in his own masterpiece, not knowing it, not realizing the extent and sufficiency of it."

Miller's love affair with Louisiana continued when, at Hall's suggestion, he looked up New Orleans' Dr. Marion Souchon, a surgeon who had begun painting at age 60. "It is the same with Dr. Souchon's paintings as with the whole atmosphere of Louisiana -- it is American and it is not American. Many of his pictures might have been the work of a contemporary French artist. Not in subject matter, but in feeling and approach. There is something wise and gay in all of them, something which at times comes close to the great Nature spirit of the Chinese painters. Something which revives in one the thought that 'we are near awakening when we dream that we dream.'"

As for New Orleans itself, Miller was no less rhapsodic. "It is the most congenial city in America that I know of and it is due in large part, I believe, to the fact that here at last on this bleak continent the sensual pleasures assume the importance they deserve."

In truth, Miller liked more about America than just Louisiana. He had good things to say about Arkansas, was quite kind to children in Albuquerque and actually cried at the sight of the Grand Canyon. (He would eventually settle in the West.) What he hated most were the cities, urban wastelands whose living conditions were deplorable and whose working conditions stole men's souls. He saw a complacent, complicit media and a homogenized people. America's saving graces were the eccentrics and underappreciated artists he found, but even these were not enough to tip the scales. And so his general negative opinion of America never wavered. "Detroit isn't the worst place -- not by a long shot," he wrote. "That's what I said about Pittsburgh. That's what I'll say about other places too. None of them is the worst. There is no worst or worstest. The worst is in the process of becoming. It's inside us now, only we haven't brought it forth." (One has to wonder if he was presciently imagining strip malls, media consolidation and tabloid television, but that would be a whole other discussion.)

In the end, as unkind as much of this is, one awakes with the impression that Miller's anger was born of a deep disappointment. Miller was never wrong; he could just be hard to take. The man wanted America to live up to its promises of equality and opportunity and was rebellious enough to stamp his foot in fury when he saw ample evidence that it was falling short. Progress simply for the sake of progress saddened him, and his frustration turned him into a bitter, sometimes tedious crank. But if there's a lesson in , perhaps it's that there are millions of ways of loving your country -- and liking it isn't necessarily one of them.

Continued ...


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