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Author of six novels, seven volumes of poetry and numerous essays and short critical studies, Erica Jong has a reputation for controversy--a reputation Erica Jong on Henry Miller: The Devil at Large will certainly bolster. The New York Times Book Review has already declared the book, Jong's first full-length work of non-fiction, "silly," and Jong's descriptions of Miller as a "prophet" who "invented a new style of writing" and "forever changed the way American literature would be written" will surely inspire debate elsewhere.
Henry Miller is controversial in and of himself. Jong aims to get her readers to see beyond that controversy--beyond the charges of racism and sexism and empty pornographic writing. But Erica Jong on Henry Miller (an unfortunate title, at best) only adds fuel to the fire; it fails to provide the cultural context necessary for a re-evaluation of Miller and his meaning to America and American literature. One controversial writer merely joins ranks with another, and neither writer's work is illuminated.
Touted as "part biography, part memoir, part critical study, and part exploration of sexual politics in our time," Erica Jong on Henry Miller is indeed a jumble of attitudes and voices--some sentimental, some pedantic. Jong's original intention in writing the book was to chronicle her friendship with Henry Miller. After the publication of her first novel, Fear of Flying, in 1974, Jong received "an enthusiastic fan letter" from a then 83-year-old Miller; the two began a correspondence that lasted until Miller's death in 1980. Jong sees Miller as "a kindred spirit," and she spends a great deal of energy in Erica Jong on Henry Miller trying to bring her readers to the same conclusion. Fear of Flying, she writes, "had struck a nerve...people detested or adored it. It became an event in their lives and they tended to hold the author responsible for the consequences. Henry Miller understood, perhaps better than anyone, what I was living through." Miller's "story" and Jong's "story," according to Jong, "have one thing in common: the search for the courage to be a writer...the courage to be an individual, no matter what the consequences."
But Jong's larger project in Erica Jong on Henry Miller is to explain Miller's importance--and perhaps her own importance, by extension--to American literary history. Jong summarizes her intent at the end of a chapter titled "Why Must We Read Miller? Miller as Sage": "I want to send you back to read him--with an open head and heart." Unfortunately, though she makes some interesting claims (e.g. "Ultimately Miller can be a stronger force for feminism than for male chauvinism."), few heads and hearts will be opened by her critical commentary. Jong quotes a passage from Miller's Tropic of Cancer, for example--"I too would become a Jew...Why not? I already speak like a Jew. And I am as ugly as a Jew. Besides, who hates the Jews more than Jews?"--and then explains this passage as just an example of "Henry's lifelong habit of letting it all hang out." There may be a way to contextualize Miller's anti-Semitism. "Letting it all hang out" isn't it.
Even more irresponsible and annoying is Jong's treatment of the "feminist," a term she almost always follows with "zealot" and applies without distinction to such diverse thinkers as Kate Millett, Germaine Greet and Andrea Dworkin. Jong says that she "respect[s] the courage of those feminists who have come forward to illuminate the nature of pornography against women," but she shows no consciousness of the evolving nature of that illumination and makes no effort to convey the complexity of the American feminist debate on pornography. Complicated theoretical issues are dismissed with reductive summaries: "The pen, as so many feminist critics have shown, has been treated as analogous to the penis in our literary culture. This accounts for the trouble that feminists, myself included, have with Henry Miller." Jong urges her readers to be "smarter than...two-bit polemists...[to] understand the war between the sexes so that we can end it." But instead of giving an intelligent reading of the "feminist" climate surrounding Henry Miller's reception, she defends Miller against a vaguely defined "feminist" lynch mob. The result is aimless rambling with no real theoretical significance.
On an anecdotal level, Erica Jong on Henry Miller serves a useful purpose. Read the book if you want to know what the inside of Henry Miller's house looked like, which wife he really liked best, or whether he agreed with Anals Nin's characterization of June Miller in Henry and June. The majority of the letters Jong and Miller wrote back and forth are published in the book, and they are worth reading. Beyond the self-congratulation and mutual admiration, the letters provide insight into the two writers' conceptions of their work and the changing world around them. Also useful is Jong's quick summary of Miller's career--particularly the history of Miller's censorship and publication--although it relies heavily on much more interesting books on the same subject such as Edward de Grazia's Girls Lean Back Everywhere.
As a comprehensive reading of Henry Miller and American culture, Erica Jong on Henry Miller is disappointing. Anais Nin's The Novel of the Future and Otto Rank's Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development (with Nin's introduction), both published 25 years ago, better illustrate Miller's perceptions of the artist's role in society and society's view of the artist Henry Miller. Jong warns her readers about the biographies of Miller currently in publication: "Henry Miller's recent biographers try, willy-nilly, to fit him into preexisting patterns; and when they fail, they blame him. But Henry's very message is that life is formless, and that creativity partakes of divine chaos." But you would probably gain more from these "willy-nilly" scholars than from Jong. Jong doesn't explain the chaos, she just adds to it.
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