Literature as a Dead Duck

By Miller, Henry | Chicago Review, Summer-Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Literature as a Dead Duck


Miller, Henry, Chicago Review


The Fall 1955 issue was devoted to essays on the topic "Changing American Culture"; it included essays by Benjamin Mays, Michael Harrington, Nat Hentoff, and Walt Kelly. Henry Miller, whose work was primarily available through French publishers at the time, contributed the following essay on the state of American literature to the issue; his was a topic that would be addressed in Chicago Review many times during the era, notably by publisher Alan Swallow and philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Miller would be courted again for a contribution to the magazine; staffer GARY MOKOTOFF recently remembered the magazine's strategy:

David Ray was editor at that time and one of the contributors was Henry Miller. I asked Ray how he was able to get the eccentric author to write for the Chicago Review. He chuckled and told me that most editors sent a long letter to Miller and got nothing. He just sent a letter that said "Dear Henry: We haven't gotten a manuscript from you in a while. Please send one. (signed) David Ray."

One of the most pleasant recollections I have of my recent trip to Europe is the number and variety of good books which were everywhere in evidence. What a relief it was to be looking again at paper-backed books whose titles, authors', and publishers' names alone combine to make such attractive, seductive cover designs. Is there anything more dull, monotonous, and destructive to the appetite than the typical American hard-cover book whose paper jacket screams and shrieks to capture attention? Facing me, as I write, are the backs of some thousand or more books which form my meager library. The foreign editions stand out with the same downright integrity, simplicity, and reality which distinguish the man of Europe from the American in my eyes. For, in the realm of book-making as in the realm of politics or any other realm, each nation reveals its own peculiar traits. Opening a Swedish book, for example, you will always find excellent white paper and clean, clear, attractive type enhanced by the diacritical marks employed in Swedish script. One can never mistake an Italian book for a German book, or vice versa. As for de luxe editions, the foreign ones are as superior to the American variety as anything "de luxe" can be. It is the same sort of difference one finds between the best American cooking and the best French, or between a suite of rooms at the Claridge or the Crillon and a suite in any expensive hotel in Manhattan (where there seem to be nothing but expensive hotels).

Every time I receive a copy of the Guilde du Livre's monthly bulletin my heart jumps with joy. Even if I have not the time to read every article, the mere leafing through the bulletin warms me and exhilarates me in a way that nothing from the American publishing world possibly can. I could offer many reasons for my reactions but the chief one, I believe, is that anything which a European writes about books or authors revives in me that most wonderful feeling of inexhaustibility. With us the subject of literature seems to have been worn threadbare ages ago. I have the impression that there is no genuine, vital, continuous interest in books or their makers. All I am aware of is a compensatory activity which resembles the feverishness of drunken grave-diggers. The few who spend their time fanning the flame, who work laboriously to dig up new facts, figures, or whatever may have a sensational appeal, do not impress me as book-lovers; they do not write from a superabundant wealth of experience or association with books; they are not overflowing with rich memories, bizarre encounters, shattering firsthand discoveries; they are not making symphonic parallels and analogies with other books, other authors, other languages, other times. One seldom feels that any of these gents has ever been on intimate terms with a great author, or even a distinguished author. This does not deter him, however, from writing about his subject as if he were an all-seeing eye. …

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