Thursday, October 05, 2006

Miller's Campaign For The Nobel Prize

"One must wait for Miller to become respectable."
-- Member of Nobel Prize committee, "years" before 1978, explaining to Lawrence Durrell why Henry Miller had not yet won the literary award [Oct. 16, 1978/The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-1980]

Henry Miller had his eye on the 1978 or 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature. As a man of 86, he could not wait any longer to be nominated. He encouraged his friends, publishers and acquaintances to participate in a letter-writing campaign in his support. The awards went instead to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978) and Odysseus Elytis (1979).


Knut Hamsun--one of Miller's most revered writers--won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. Miller was 28 years old, and must have secretly desired the prestigious prize ever since then. In 1946, Miller wrote the following to Wallace Fowlie, which seems to confirm his long-held desire to win it:

"As I said to G. [Maurice Girodias] -- if I got the Nobel Prize, it would give me no thrill. One waits too long for everything to really enjoy it when it comes. Besides my focus is now elsewhere." [3/6/1946/ Letters of Henry Miller to Wallace Fowlie, p.107]

Meanwhile, an American writer whom Miller thought much less of--Ernest Hemingway--won the Nobel Prize in 1954. Miller's bitterness is apparent in an essay he had published that same year:

"The American strikes me as having the vivacity of a pall-bearer [....] Every month some well-known American author is being translated into one of the numerous European tongues. Can anyone say that, taken as a whole, the works of our contemporary authors breathe optimism, wisdom, courage or insight? Examine the works of those American authors who won the Nobel Prize: do they reflect the spirit of a young, ardent, up-an-coming race?"
["When I Reach For My Revolver," p.2, from Stand Still Like The Humminbird, p.51]

In a letter dated Decemebr 2, 1958, Miller wrote this to his photographer friend, Brassai: "We may see each other again when I receive the Nobel Prize (what a joke!)." But as Brassai explains in an April 1959 entry from The Happy Rock: ".. he laughs until he sheds bitter tears: 'You'll see, one day I'll win the Nobel Prize all the same! And other grave magistrates will praise my books.' He's joking. Yet I detect a glimmer of hope in his words [...] After all, couldn't he get the award in Stockholm? Obscenity is no impediment. The winds can change. Wasn't André Gide among the elect despite—or because of—his defense of homosexuality? Wasn't he honored precisely for his courageous struggle against hypocrisy? The same arguments may one day work in Henry's favor."
[The Happy Rock, p. 6].


Flash-forward, 20 years later. Henry Miller sends out postcards to friends, publishers, influential acquaintances with the following request:

"Dear Friend, In my attempt to obtain the Nobel Prize for Literature this coming year I hope to enlist your support. All I ask is for you to write a few succinct lines to: Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, Borshuset, 11129 Stockholm, Sweden. Please note that the committee urgently requests that the name of the proposed candidate not be publicized. Sincerely, Henry Miller."
[August 28, 1978/ Henry Miller And James Laughlin: Selected Letters, p. 271]

Letters of support were fired off to the Academy by such people as Lawrence Durrell, Kay Boyle, Elmer Gertz, Barney Rosset (Grove Press), Maurice Girodias (Olympia Press), Hans Reitzel, John Killinger (Dean, Vanderbilt University), J. Rives Childs (American Ambassador), William S. Burroughs, William Targ, and Noel Young (Capra Press). [ref. PBA - Personal Archives of Henry Miller, Item #69].

Erica Jong responded immediately to the request: "Of course I'll try to think of something persuasive to write the Nobel Committee. Who deserves it more than you? I fear, though, that because they recently gave it to an American [Saul Bellow], they won't want another American so soon. Probably they are looking for some Latvian goatherd who writes obscure poems in a dialect spoken by only 3 (very elderly) people. Some of their selections are truly idiotic - & most of the greatest writers of all time have been neglected in favor of hacks...."
[PBA - Personal Archives of Henry Miller, Item #15]

The Nobel Prize for Literaure for 1978 was handed out on October 5, 1978, to Polish-American Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Miller had recently been an active admirer of Singer's work.

A great irony is that Singer (at left) supported Henry Miller's nomination for the 1978 Nobel Prize he himself would win. In private, he responded to Miller's nomination request in September 1978:
"I think that no writer alive has earned as much recognition, praise and high prizes as you both for your literary work and for your selfless fight for literary freedom. Of course I will write to the Academy. Just the same I feel that you are too great a man to ask for any prize. Whatever recognition you should get must come from the givers, not from you...Whatever the results, you will remain a pillar of literature and a most couragous fighter against any kind of censorship in literature. Yours with love and admiration, Isaac B. Singer."
[PBA - Personal Archives of Henry Miller, Item #79]

Even as the spotlight was on Singer for his Nobel win, he told reporters that Miller deserved to win "for his fight against censorship, for freedom of literature." [Singer interview with Phyllis Malamud, October 6, 1978] (Incidentally, on the official Nobel Prize website, you may read Singer's presentation speech or his Nobel lecture [which may also be listened to on RealPlayer]).


[All reactions drawn from The Durrell-Miller Letters 1935-1980].

In his correspondance with Lawrence Durrell, Miller states: "No, I wasn't robbed of prize by Singer - my applications are for 1979." [p. 498]. In my mind, this reveals a miscommunication by Miller, as everyone else seems to have acted to have him nominated for 1978. In any case, he did not win for 1979 either.

Discouraged by Durrell's anecdote about a committee member not finding him "respectable" enough, Miller blames the Swedes: "Respectable! What shit! Just like these Swedes of the Academy." [p.498] ... "Those blasted Swedes. They ate up Quiet Days In Clichy. But -- I must tell you some other time how I offended Artur Lundkvist, Swedish poet and translator. [...] (Let me only say this -- there are no greater, no more colossal bores than most Scandanavians, with Swedes in the lead.)" [p.498]

Miller then goes on to expain that he doesn't want to Nobel Prize for "fame or glory. Shit, I have enuf of that now," but instead for the cash prize to cover his inheritance taxes. [p.499]

1979 passed without a Nobel Prize. On the eve of the following year, Durrell wrote on encouraging letter to Miller: "PS - Now they say that 1980 is your Nobel year!" But it was not to be, as Henry Miller died on June 7th that year. Unfortunately, according to Nobel Prize statute #4, a Prize may not be awarded posthumously.

Here are several quotes by Miller regarding this Prize campaign, from his letters to Maurice Girodias.


Blogger RuKsaK said...

I'm a huge Miller fan of course, but this post and the previous one are really quite upsetting. When I think about the exhuberance he brought to his works, this pleading for a young woman and a prize seem sadly incongruous to me.

8:26 pm  
Blogger RC said...

Hi Ruksak,
Yes, it's disappointing to see Miller in this light, but it must also understood in the context of him being a man in his 80s; he knew he was near his life's end and wanted, I'm sure, to clutch at every object of desire before such things were no longer attainable. Age aside, Miller was full of contradictions throughout his life: we admire him for his passion and honesty, but these things don't always add up to a flawless, noble hero. As much as I admire the man's strengths, his character was riddled with human weakness; he could be a saint or a jerk, sometimes at once. From afar, I view these mutliple shadings as fascinating. Miller was not "super"-human, he was unapologetically, painfully just human, which is why, I think, so many can relate to him.

9:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

are we going to look for perfection or for excellence?

of course, miller had flaws; what a boring nobody he'd been otherwise.

i'm very grateful for your site.

juli vímet

10:22 pm  
Blogger RuKsaK said...

I should say that it wasn't your posts which upset me and I realise Miller had faults - just he had more admirable faults in his earlier days than in his later years.

You are absolutely right though - if there is one thing which makes Miller brilliant it was his abject lust for life - and you are quite right in explaining why he grasped at the things he did in his eighties.

By the way, I am equally grateful for your site and it is a treasure to find someone so devoted to Miller.

6:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never thought the Nobel was a big deal, having seen the Pulitzer and thinking that my diploma looked nicer. But then I saw Pearl Buck's Nobel and I was stunned. They are really beautifully made.

Of course, that is just the award itself - everyone really wants the prestige and cash prize, and who can blame them? Perhaps one of us will be in the envious position of fighting for a prize like the Nobel one day.

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Anonymous Jon said...

I recently watched the video 'Dinner with Henry Miller' (1979) where he says over the dinner table with Brenda Venus that his interest in the Nobel prize was purely to cover the anticipated inheritance taxes on his estate (as you mention). Watching the video, I took this to be his primary motivation. The explanation fit perfectly with the Miller we've come to know through his novels. But, of course, the person behind the narrative voice is not 100% the same person. In light of your post, I guess I may have been naive.

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