Monday, November 14, 2005

Henry Miller And Black Cat Magazine

“The longer a man lives the more convinced he becomes that the essential thing is not what a man says or does but how he says it or does it.”
----- Henry Miller in The Black Cat magazine, May 1919

Henry Miller was 27-years old when he received his first cheque for a published piece of his work. The work in question was a series of story critiques for The Black Cat Magazine in 1919.

The Black Cat magazine began publication in 1895 under the editorial eye of Herman Daniel (H.D.) Umbstaetter in Salem , Massachusetts. It intially focussed on strange fantasy stories and welcomed contributions from first-time writers. Science fiction writer Clark Ashton Smith first got his start in its pages. The most notable neophyte writer to launch his career in The Black Cat was Jack London, whose short story A Thousand Deaths was published in May 1899 and earned him $40. London refers to this experience in this essay from 1913.

Umbstaetter died in 1913 and the editorial reigns passed through a few more hands before resting in those of Harold E. Bessom in 1915. At the start of 1919, Black Cat announced the beginning of the Black Cat Club. BCC membership allowed subscribers to submit critiques of stories that appeared in the magazine, and would pay one penny a word in return.

Henry Miller first learned of this "club" when he happened to purchase a 15-cent copy of the January 1919 issue of The Black Cat. The editorial stated:

“The editors of The Black Cat are constantly receiving manuscripts that are apparently the first, last, and only efforts of writers who look with longing eyes upon authorship as a profession, but haven’t the courage to keep eternally at it. It never occurs to many of them that in the writing game, as in any other profession, it is necessary to serve an apprenticeship. They are a long time in finding out the first rule—that only by steeping themselves in technique can they master the art of the short-story writer.”

Miller took the bait and bought a subscription. Upon arrival of the February 1919 issue, he set to the task of dissecting a story by Carl Clausen called The Unbidden Guest. His 486-word essay was accepted for publication in the May 1919 issue of The Black Cat [at left]. Henry was so happy he threw his hat into the city air and allowed it to be run over by traffic.

The Black Cat accepted four more critiques from Miller: two in June (When The Red Snow Falls and The Graven Image), Proprietary And A Pullman (August 1919) and A Philistine In Arcady (October 1919). [source: William Ashley's Henry Miller bibliography].

As I've never personally read these essays, I can only recommend that you read the reviews of his biographers who have. In particular, see Jay Martin's Always Merry And Bright (p.51-53) and Mary Dearborn's Happiest Man Alive (p.62-64). Miller also makes reference to his Black Cat experience in Remember To Remember (p.338). Besides literary commentary, Miller's BC critiques include personal observations, such as "The single truth about marraige is that it is a disillusion."

The Black Cat Club was dissolved by the end of 1919, ending Henry's good run. Black Cat magazine continued publication until March 1922. In 1996, Miller expert Roger Jackson published Henry's Black Cat critiques in a limited run of 350 copies under the title Letters To The Black Cat.

The photo of Henry Miller on the left side of the banner heading was taken in 1920.


Anonymous JamesD said...

I have a copy of the Jackson book. Here's the first paragraph from Miller's June 1919 review of "When the Red Snow Falls":

"If American short story writers wrote only about things that counted they would soon place our literature on the same plane with the Russian and French productions.They have imagination, ability to express themselves and a wonderfully entertaining style but there is a glittering sterility about their work which is baffling and provoking."

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Blogger RC said...

Thanks for the details JamesD. I appreciate your contributions and wouldn't mind seeing them whenever you feel inspired to add to anything.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a copy of the January 1904 issue, will be posting a review of later today.

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