Henry Miller was born December 26, 1891 to German-American parents. His father Heinrich worked as a tailor, and his sister Lauretta Anna was mentally retarded. It was a working-class family, and Miller describes his childhood in some of his writing as being very much “of the streets.”
That said, he was a voracious reader and excelled in school, shining as a pupil from an early age. He enrolled in City College of New York, but left after only two months. After college he drifted from job to job (as Tropic of Capricorn recounts), working at a cement company, at his father’s tailor shop, and in a post office. He married an amateur pianist named Beatrice Sylvas Wickens in 1917, and the couple had a child.
Miller’s first long-term job was at the Western Union Telegraph Company – caustically labeled in Tropic of Capricorn the “Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America.” In 1924 he quit, left his wife and child, and had an affair with a Broadway dancer named June Mansfield Smith. June encouraged Miller’s writing, which he had lately been taking more and more seriously. He wrote Clipped Wings in 1922 (Macmillan Publishers rejected it), and he wrote intensely while with June, though he soon grew weary of her unstable lifestyle. In 1930, penniless, he moved to Paris. There he met Alfred Perles, an Austrian writer who took him under his wing and supported him financially. Then came Anais Nin, the French writer, who proclaimed him a genius and supported him as well. Miller finally managed to publish some of his work, through the Obelisk Press under the pseudonyms Basil Carr and Cecil Barr.
Tropic of Cancer was published in 1934, and Tropic of Capricorn in 1938. Both were sensations, scandalizing readers with their wealth of sexual imagery and startling invective. For almost three decades thereafter, both novels were outlawed in the United States, until a Supreme Court ruling finally repealed the ban. More major works followed: Black Spring in 1936, and The Colossus of Maroussi in 1941.
When World War II broke out, Miller returned to the U.S. He married anew in 1944, to a student named Janina Martha Lepska. The marriage ended seven years later. In 1961, Tropic of Cancer was finally published in America. Just four years earlier, Miller had been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Tropic of Cancer did great business, and Miller became one of the most widely-read authors of the '60s; indeed, the anti-authoritarianism and explicit content of his novels helped free American authors to pursue similar directions. With significant income at his disposal for almost the first time in his life, Miller bought a spectacular house in the Pacific Palisades. He published The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy in 1965. He married again in 1967, to a Japanese singer named Hiroki “Hoko” Tokuda. His last lover was an actress named Brenda Venus. Miller was married a total of five times over the course of his life.
Henry Miller died on June 7, 1980, in Pacific Palisades, having influenced an entire generation of writers around the world and driven a wedge through censorship rulings in the United States.
Study Guides on Works by Henry Miller
Tropic of Cancer was first published in Paris in 1934. Few other novels of the century have created as much of a stir. Some writers, including Anais Nin, proclaimed it a work of genius, while others were baffled; critics began to bicker about its...
First released in 1936 and banned from the U.S. for nearly thirty years, Tropic of Capricorn, along with its predecessor Tropic of Cancer, set a new standard for explicitness of content. D. H. Lawrence’s novels, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and other...