In terms of sheer volume, I peaked as a reader in my 20s.
In those days, I didn’t do much except read. Life was pretty simple. I extended my student years without much effort, drifting along. But always with a book!
As long as I stayed in school, no one seemed to bother me too much. I knew I’d discovered one of the great truths, hidden for so long in plain sight: As long as you appear to be doing something, no matter how pointless or quixotic it is, people will generally leave you alone.
That is what I wanted. I wanted to enjoy my books and my friends and write my not-very-good stories and poems.
I didn’t think too much about the future. By the time I was 25, I’d worked so many different kinds of jobs that I could tell how things were going to pan out – cheap rent, low wages, ridiculous adventures. Fine!
I was an arrogant, hard-headed student. I had the convictions of a longtime autodidact. When you’re caught up in the romance of literature, you make your own canon.
My favorite writers went against the grain. I felt I’d personally lived each book. In this realm, I was the sole arbiter of what was gunpowder and what was dynamite.
My list of favorites was constantly evolving, of course. Part of the fun was the detective work, connecting the dots between writers and genres and styles. A good writer will always introduce you to other good writers.
This was the vanishing analog world. Print, tape, vinyl. I won’t say it was a better time, just a different time. I’m glad I spent my youth there.
And what of those writers I devoured in my 20s?
Some have held up remarkably well. Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Hemingway. Even Bukowski and the Beats have been safely tucked away in Norton anthologies.
Joan Acocella, in a recent review of three novels deemed representative of “the new sex” for The New Yorker (“Blue Period,” Nov. 7), mentioned another writer I still enjoy reading:
A century [after Jane Austen’s Persuasion], many writers felt that sex, to be sexual, had to be more forthrightly depicted, a notorious example being the scene in which Lady Chatterley weaves a garland of flowers into her gamekeeper’s pubic hair. Today, however, that passage looks rather old-fashioned, as does a lot of Henry Miller.
Whoa, hold up there, Joan.
Getting freaky botanical-style is out? That’s good intel. I suppose it’s been replaced by something, uh, digital.
Lady Chatterley’s creator, D.H. Lawrence, died in 1930. “Old-fashioned” is a wide net, but I guess it applies to a large number of writers who have been dead almost a century.
But Henry Miller? I happened to be reading Miller again when I came across Acocella’s aside.
His first book, Tropic of Cancer (1934) was not published in the U.S. until 1961, and it took three more years for the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark obscenity case, to declare it a work of literature.
I’m guessing the U.S. Supreme Court sold more books for Miller than all of the critical appreciations of his work combined.
In The World of Sex (1957), Miller makes no apologies for the “liberal dosage” of four-letter words and ribald interludes that led to his work being banned in the U.S. for decades.
“Only a few discerning souls seem capable of reconciling the supposedly contradictory aspects of a being who has endeavored to withhold no part of himself in his written work,” Miller wrote.
The author of Tropic of Cancer was concerned “not with sex, nor with religion, but with the problem of self-liberation.”
For Miller, self-liberation meant an impoverished exile in France and an arduous search for enlightenment.
Everything fell into latitude and longitude, so to speak. There were great tracts of fog, which was metaphysics; broad, flaming belts, the religions; burning comets, whose tails spelled hope. And so on … And there was sex. But what was sex? Like the deity, it was omnipresent. It pervaded everything.
Miller’s sexy oeuvre – which includes Black Spring, the two Tropics and the three novels known collectively as The Rosy Crucifixion – doesn’t strike me as old-fashioned.
Comical and more than a little surreal, yes. Miller explored sexuality with the same kitchen-sink fervor he brought to bear on all facets of existence. The resulting books are an attempt to comprehend nothing less than the entire cosmos.
Is Miller still worth a look in 2011? My answer is an unqualified yes, if for no other reason than this passage from The World of Sex:
A new world is in the making, a new type of man is in the bud. The masses, destined now to suffer more cruelly than ever before, are paralyzed with dread and apprehension. They have withdrawn, like the shell-shocked, into their self-created tombs; they have lost all contact with reality except where their bodily needs are concerned. The body, of course, has long ceased to be the temple of the spirit. It is thus that man dies in the world – and to the Creator. In the course of disintegration, a process which may go on for centuries, life loses all significance.
John Hicks is a regular contributor to B2L2.