Saturday, May 26, 2007

That Slimey Well Of Horrors

"Thinking back on it now, after a lapse of months, I honestly believe that I would rather be shot than forced to descend that staircase alone. In fact, I think I would die of heart failure before ever reaching the bottom."
--- Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941) [1]

As told in The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller twice tried to descend an ancient underground cistern in Mycenae, Greece, but was too terrified to continue. While Henry's fearful journey into these depths was aborted in 1939, Professor Eric D Lehman completed the downward mission on Henry's behalf in 2002. He wrote about tracing Miller's steps in Greece in his travelogue essay from that year called The Ghost of Henry Miller.

Mycenae is 60 miles from Athens. From 1600 - 1100 BC, the citadel dominated southern Greece as a major social and military centre. By the beginning of the first millenium, the empire had fallen and the grounds of Mycenae had become a tourist site while under the Roman rule. In 1841, the original Lion's Gate entranceway to Mycenae was re-disocvered, and in 1874, a major excavation project began.

In it's heyday, there was one big problem with Mycenae: there was no natural water source. In the 1200s BC, a cistern was tunnelled into rock in order to collect spring water running from Mount Elias. To this day, the underground passage descends nearly 50 feet (15 metres), and is accesible only by carefully walking down 99 steps. This staircase surface is notoriously slick.

Above: the entrance to the Mycenae well (image from
On a Sunday morning in November, 1939 (Miller references Thanksgiving--which was on Thursday the 23rd--so this must be either November 19 or 26th), Henry arrived at Mycenae with his new Greek friend George Katsimbalas. "Mycenae is closed in, huddled up, writhing with muscular contortions like a wrestler" [p. 88].

The Lion's Gate at Mycenae (image from Jan Bergtun)

By late morning, the two men passed through the Lion's Gate entrance to the citadel. When they reach the cistern entrance, they entered it cautiously, using lighted matches to peer into the darkness. "The heavy roof is buckling with the weight of time. To breathe too heavily is enough to pull the world down over our ears" [p.91]. Katsimbalas didn't want to miss this opportunity to explore the ancient depths and was willing to crawl on his knees if need be. He had been through much more frightening situations during his service in WWI. Henry, who had managed to avoid the military draft, had not developed a thick skin, and refused to proceed further into "that slimey well of horrors." "Not if there were a pot of gold to be filched would I make the descent" [p.91]. After a few more steps in which air quickly snuffed their matches and the stone beams seemed to sag dangerously, Henry retreated to the blinding Greek daylight.


Not long before leaving Greece a month later, Henry returned to Mycenae. This time, he had two companions to lean on for courage: Lawrence Durrell and his wife, Nancy. Despite having lived in Greece for a few years, the Durrells had never seen Mycenae. Again, Henry found himself atop the dark, slippery staircase; only this time he had a flashlight. "Durrell went first, Nancy next, and I followed gingerly behind. About half-way down we halted instinctively and debated whether to go any farther" [p. 215]. Despite the flashlight and twice the company, Henry felt even more terrified than his first attempt because he was even further in the rocky bowels than before.

"I had two distinct fears--one, that the slender buttress at the head of the stairs would give way and leave us to smother to death in utter darkness, and two, that a mis-step would send me slithering down into the pit amidst a spawn of snakes, lizards and bats." [p.215] Henry felt great relief when he finally convinced Larry to abandon their mission. "When I reached the surface I was in a cold sweat and mentally still going through the motion of kicking off the demons who were trying to drag me back into the horror-laden mire" [p.215].

In 2002, with the ghost of Henry Miller clearly in mind, Eric Lehman went down into the cistern at Mycenae. "Leaving my family at the Lion's Gate, I scramble up the height of Mycenae - a camera, Colossus [of Maroussi] and a bottle of water in my backpack. Twisted trees and crumbled rock walls waver in the heat. Occasional tourists stare off across the Argive plain. I must find the cistern, the dark place where Henry Miller could not go - the slippery staircase into Hades." When Lehman finally finds the "gaping doorway," he realizes he has no flashlight with him. Suddenly a small group of tourists ascend the steps, leading their way with dripping candles. "The ghost of Henry Miller, disguised as an elderly British woman, hands me hers."

"I descend the slippery staircase behind two young boys and a girl. The light bobs and flickers. My knees shake. The ancient steps, probably the oldest on the continent, are worn and wet. I remind myself that I need to do this, to go where my hero could not. The walls are slick, marbled slime.

At the third turn, the three teens balk, echoing at each other in Greek. I take the lead, stepping down, down, down. The meager light from our three candles makes the cistern seem small and tight. Finally, the bottom appears in the dimness, wavering and watery, muddy and flat. I step into the muck and touch the final cold wall with my right hand, invoking a blessing for my gods and heroes - for poor, claustrophobic Henry.

I don't linger. Some victories are not meant to be savored."

Above left: Students from Dickinson College explore the cistern with candles.

Read the entire account of Lehman's Miller-conscious trip to Greece at Bootnall or Travelmag.

Another shot the the doorway (image from odysseyadventures)

On a final note, it's curious how the doorway in some ways resembles a vagina. Miller has used the image of the womb more than once in his writing, so, for those who enjoy cheap symbolic interpretations, you may want to consider that this represents a phobia of the womb. But a more likely explanation is just the old-fashioned fears of the dark, small spaces, snakes, and death.

And here's some analysis of Colossus of Maroussi [PDF] by Andy Hoffman.

[1] Miller, Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi. New Directions paperback NDP75 27th printing.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Nightmare Car

"Little by little, we evolved the idea of getting a car. The only way to see America is by automobile--that's what everybody says. It's not true, of course, but it sounds wonderful."
--- Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, p. 14 [1]

Henry Miller and Abe Rattner drove across America in 1940-41. The end result for Miller was The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Henry and Abe (sometimes) made most of the trek in a used 1932 Buick. Henry had taken only six driving lessons and knew nothing about car mechanics.
When a $500 publisher's advance came to Miller in August 1940, Henry and Abe went car shopping. Neither of them knew much about automobiles, so they relied upon the opinion of the car salesman who assured them that a 1932 Buick sedan was a "good, reliable vehicle" [1, p.14] "I had never owned a car, didn't know how to drive one even. I wish now we had chosen a canoe instead" [1, p.14]. This was the first car they looked at; it was good enough for them. Henry paid $100 from the advance.

A 1932 Buick sedan (image from the GM Photo Store)
Henry actually took his first driving lesson around 1927. Sid "Reb" Essen--a corner store owner in Brooklyn--insisted that Henry learn how to drive his car, so that he could borrow it to drive June out to the country. The anecdote is described in Nexus, pages 199, 207-208, and 225-226. [2] When Henry tells June that Reb says he can teach him to drive in three lessons, she replies: "Don't do it, Val. You're not meant to drive a car."

One Saturday, Reb took Henry out for his first lesson. It was a big eight-cylindered, four-door Buick sedan. At first Henry was just shown what it felt like behind the wheel; where the brakes and gas pedal were, how to operate the gears. In a vacant lot, Henry then learned the basics of turning, parking and backing up. With Reb's blessings, Henry was given the green light to take June for a spin. Henry was nervous about backing up: "The damned things was too huge, too lumbering; it had too much power." [2, p.225]. He had to stop every few miles in order to keep himself calm. After a nightmarish twenty-mile drive, which left Henry a sweating, nervous wreck, he vowed never to drive again. On his way back, he had a minor fender-bender with a jalopy. When the mechanical beast was finally parked, Miller was relieved to be back on his own two feet.

Both Rattner and Miller were novice drivers, learning what they could in six lessons: "A little nervous, I must confess, because we had only had about a half dozen lessons in driving at the Automobile School. I knew how to steer, how to shift gears, how to apply the brake--what more was necessary?" [1, p.15] He hadn't practiced night driving, which he regretted later [1, p. 234]. Apparently, Kenneth Patchen also provided Miller with some lessons [3, p. 377]. Miller and Rattner set off on their adventure on October 24, 1940. Henry was the first at the wheel. He was shaken up after driving through the Holland Tunnel, so Abe took over after just an hour.

For the first half of Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the car itself is not much of a character. It's referenced in very minor, practical ways. On page 33, there's an exception, but it's not about his car. While stopping in Ohio, Miller is struck by the many cars parked outside of mills and factories: "The automobile stands out in my mind as the very symbol of falsity and illusion. There they are, thousands upon thousands of them, in such profusion that it would seem as if no man were too poor to own one." He goes to imagine that the "toiling masses" in other countries of the world see the shiny American car as a symbol of "Paradise," but "they don't see the bitterness in the heart, the skepticism, the cynicism, the emptiness, the sterility, the despair, the hopelessness which is eating up the American worker."

In February 1941, Henry had to leave the car parked in Natchez, Mississippi in order to fly into New York, to try to see his father before he died (he missed him by two hours). The car was not picked up again for over a month.

In the second half of the book, Henry is driving alone. Abe is no longer with him. The car is mentioned more often at this point, even receiving its own chapter called "Automotive Passacaglia." In this chapter, Henry waits as his car is being fixed at a service station in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Henry enjoys watching the mechanics try to discover the source of his car's tendancy to overheat, as if he were watching surgeons at work. Henry sees the engine for the first time: "It was rather beautiful, in a mechanical way. Reminded me of a steam calliope playing Chopin in a tub of grease" [1, p. 210]. A few things are repaired, but Henry is warned about the hazards of the radiator boiling over in the heat of the American South.

Henry swelterd as he drove his car from the Grand Canyon to Burbank. With an eye on the temperature gauge, Henry was constantly pulling over and waiting for his car to cool down; it overheated every 20-30 miles. He drove down a steep road at night [1, p.234] and was pulled over by a cop for having a light out [1, p.235-6]. After a stay-over in Hollywood, Miller drove the car back to New York in October 1941. He had driven 25,000 miles.

I have no idea what happened to that car. If only it still existed, maybe kept permenantly on display at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, what a wonderful experience it would be sit behind that wheel. My guess is that the 1932 Buick is long gone.

[1] The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, by Henry Miller (New Direction Paperback NDP302).
[2] Nexus, by Henry Miller (Grove Press paperback).
[3] Always Merry And Bright, by Jay Martin (Penguin Books, 1980)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Roger Jackson, Publisher

Have you ever looked up a Miller sale item on a used book website, and seen a reference next to the book that looked something like 'A13 Shifreen & Jackson'? With the publication of Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Primary Sources, volumes I &II in the early 1990s, the scattered, colossal output of Henry Miller's written word finally found a home under a single roof. We can thank Roger Jackson (and a cast of supporting characters) for that. Since 1994, Jackson has continued to publish rare and unique items on Miller, from simple chapbooks to luxuriously illustrated and designed hardcover books. Jackson is also the managing editor of Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, currently on it's fourth annual volume.

The book Roger Jackson wanted to see did not exist: an absolutely definitive bibliography of Henry Miller's work. So he created one. But nothing was as simple as that. In 1990, with the 100th anniversary of Henry Miller's birth coming the following year, Jackson decided to build upon the existing bibliographies and created a master bibliography of primary sources. He discovered that Lawrence Shifreen, author of the Henry Miller Bibliography of Secondary Sources had already started a Primary Source book (although the notes were nowhere as complete as Jackson would eventually make them). But Shifreen had abandonned the project ten years earier; that is, until Jackson called him up with an offer to help him finish it. Between jobs, Jackson thought he'd be able to complete the research project by the end of the summer and see it published by 1991. Instead, Jackson shouldered a burden that would not see its first pressing until 1993.

The story is told in detail in Jackson's small press chapbook (100 copies) called A Bibliographer's Tale (1996). This book is just one of over one-hundred items Jackson has published from his small press in Michigan.

If there are rare Henry Miller items that you've read about in biographies and wondered if they still exist, chances are Roger Jackson has published them. Unpublished sections from Tropic Of Cancer? Check. The Mezzotints? Check. Letters Miller wrote to Black Cat magazine? Check. Jackson has also published specific Miller bibliographies, like a complete listing of Henry's watercolours and a visually stunning and thorough book devoted to Miller's appearances in nudie magazines. Jackson also publishes work relating to Miller friends and associates, especially Bern Porter.

All of these items were published in limited numbers and are generally hard to find now. Not even Jackson has a storehouse of his work anymore. But a dealer in Colorado now sells many of Jackson's publications [see Arcane Imprints on eBay]. As these are now collector's items, their value has greatly increased.

Roger Jackson
The Ohio State University stores a collection of Jackson's works. Their website lists the full inventory; it ends at 2001 and is not complete. Besides the Primary Sources books, I've included a mere sampling of other titles below:
The Mezzotints (1993). A facsimile edition of Miller's first eight separate publications, individual broadsides that he and June distributed in New York in the Twenties, with a booklet providing a detailed history. [description source]

Henry Miller: A Personal Archive (1994). After Primary Sources was released, the Miller children allowed Jackson and Vol. II co-author William Ashley permission to enter their deep storage of Miller's personal archive in order to catalogue it. Profusely illustrated (with many facsimiles) and describing many holographic manuscripts, transcripts, letters, photographs (Over 1000 are described) , artwork, legal documents, awards, memorabilia, booklets, correspondence journals, furniture, plays, cancelled checks, contracts, wall charts, business records, notebooks, etc. [description source]

Marilyn Monroe's bloody tampon: A section from Mrs. Henry Millers Nightmare ; a full translation of the Japanese text. (as written by Hoki Tokuda). (1995)
Writers Three: A Literary Exchange on the Works of Claude Houghton with Henry Miller, Claude Houghton, Ben Abramson (1995). Letters between the three men from 1938-1942.

I've Got The Cosmic Blues (by Henry Miller) (1995)
Henry Miller And The Nudies: A Bibliography for Readers and Collectors (1996). Expanded edition, 2001.
My Affair With Anais Nin: San Francisco Days: A Candid Interview With Bern Porter (1997).
Letters to The Black Cat (by Henry Miller) (1996).
Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Water Colors (1997).
Henry Miller and Elmer Gertz: Selected Letters 1964-1975 (1998). "While readers are urged to devour the first volume of correspondence as well, this present collection stands on its own in terms of shedding light on the lives and friendship of these two important writers through their written exchanges since July, 1964, which, significantly, marked the end of the painfully curious litigation surrounding the Grove Press publication of Tropic of Cancer."
A Letter to The New Republic (by Henry Miller) (1998).
June Scattered in Fragments: A Biographical Sketch of Henry Miller’s Second Wife (by Stephen Starck). (1998)
Henry Miller's Brooklyn (by Irving Stettner) (1999).
From Tropic of Cancer (excerpts from the novel) (1999).
Henry Miller: 18 individual Portraits and an Introductory Essay (by Peter Gowland) (2000)
William Ashley--who helped put together Primary V.II and Personal Archive along with Jackson--has his own website, on which much of Miller's bibliographical information is posted.
Roger Jackson does not have his own website, but if you happen to be at some bazaar in a village town in Iceland and discover a rare edition of a Henry Miller book with a weird publishing variation not found in the Primary Sources book, drop him a line at the Nexus wesbite.

Monday, May 14, 2007

662 Driggs Avenue, Williamsburg

"Though my memory of this early Paradise could scarcely begin before the age of 5, and though I quit the neighborhood at the age of 9, these few years are ineradicably engraved in my mind."
-- Henry Miller in "A Boyhood View of the Nineties" (New York Times, Oct. 17, 1971 [1]).

"There were three streets--North First, Fillmore Place and Driggs Avenue. These marked the boudnaries of the known world."-- Henry Miller in Black Spring, p. 206.

Shortly after his birth in 1891, the infant Henry Miller moved with his family into the top apartment of a three-story building at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg (a northern neighbourhood in Brooklyn). The Brooklyn City Directory for 1897 locates Henry's father--Henry senior--living at 662 Driggs, working as a "cutter." A good, concise description of Miller's experince at 662 Driggs may be found at (as well as the photo at left).

As his earliest stomping ground, the Driggs Avenue neighbourhood made a deep, golden impression on Miller. He would refer to it throughout his life. "I never seem to exhaust the subject," said Miller in the New York Times article mentioned above. The article is essentially a nostalgic travelogue; I am in the process of making a map out of it, which will be posted soon.
The map below locates Driggs Avenue within the New York City-Brooklyn region. The house at 662 is between North First and Metropolitan Avenue ("North Second Street," back in Henry's day). A veternarian lived across the street, and next to him, a woman named Mrs. Omelio [spelled 'Mealio' in the Brooklyn directories] kept two dozen cats on the "flat tin roof over the veternary's stable." (Book Of Friends I, p. 20). Young Henry would watch her feed them from the third story window of his house (ibid).

At an angle from the house was Henry's favourite street, Fillmore Place, at which was the winning pair of a saloon and a kindergarten. Just a few houses away from 662 Driggs "were the shanties, two or three decrepit buildings right out of a Dickens novel" [1]. One of these was a candy store run by the Meinken sisters.

At left, Henry circa 1894-95 (photo from the Special Collections at UCLA Research Library).

Further south on Driggs, Miller saw his first motion picture at the Presbyterian Church near South Third Street, circa 1897-98. A few more steps and he would arrive at the Novelty Theatre at which he enjoyed the vaudeville experience (Miller talks about the theatres around Driggs Avenue in his chapter "The Theatre," found in Books In My Life [and partly excerpted at Item #237 here)].

Miller began referencing Driggs Avenue in his first novel, Moloch: Or, This Gentile World, using the very intersection of his childhood home as a setting. "By nine o'clock, by the corner of Driggs Avenue and North First Street, thinsg began to happen. Willy Maine wasn't the whole show. Silverstein, the tailor, generally crawled out of his scabby little shanty in shirt sleeves, his suspenders flapping between his legs..." [Moloch, p. 221]. Moloch walks down Driggs several times. He even refers to his cat-crazy neighbour (as "Miss O'Melio") on page 223.

Henry met his good friend Stanley Borowski while at Driggs Avenue, so, naturally Driggs is referenced in his Book Of Friends chapter on Borowski called "Stasiu." Miller says that Stanley's uncle ("a drunken brute") owned the barber shop on the ground floor of the house he lived in (p.10). The Brooklyn directory for 1897 shows a barber named John Borowski living at 674 Driggs, not 662. Stanley sometimes ran errands for "Mrs. O'Melio" (p.20).

On page 29 of Book Of Friends I, Miller describes his memories of Driggs Avenue as always being in "full sunshine." He describes a few visuals from the street, then talks about the interior: "There are two toilets in our house: one is in the garden and is just a plain, old-fashioned shithouse. The other is upstairs on our floor and has running water and a wick floating in a little cup of sweet oil to light when it is dark. My bedroom is just a cell with one window giving on the hallway. There are iron bars protecting it, and through the iron bars come most of my nightmares in the form of a huge bear or a fearsome monster out of Grimm's fairy tales."

In the 1970s, Miller once described his childhood home to Irving Stettner as being "like the only tooth left in a rotten jaw" (From Your Capricorn Friend, p.25). Indeed, others who have visited this still-standing house in Williamsburg over the past decade have described it as "elegantly run-down" (Village Voice) or "kind of a dump" (Waly Matkowsky, on the old Miller message board).

662 DRIGGS AVENUE in 2007 -
Good news: The New York Landmarks Conservancy has apparently put up funds to protect and rennovate Henry Miller's childhood home at 662 Driggs Avenue! According to details posted on the contracted architect's website (Cutsogeorge, Tooman & Allen), the 'Henry Miller House' on Driggs Avenue is currently undergoing some rennovation for the purpose of "preservation":

"The masonry of the front elevation had been coated, the cornice had been removed and replace with concrete masonry units. The existing storefront had been altered. Scope: Emergency brick wall stabilization in conjunction with a shoring contractor, full depth wall rebuilding including replication of stone sills and lintels, stabilization of wood structural members, replication of the cornice based on historic photographs, wood window replacement, restoration and re-glazing of the original copper clad storefront."

The photograph at left (and in the banner art) come from their website, and show the house as I assume it currently exists in its spruced-up state. Can an official plaque be far behind?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Miller in Playboy, November 1971

"The renowned--and controversial--author relates his feelings about writing and painting, sex and women, god and man."
[opening blurb, Playboy, November 1971 - p. 183]

The November 1971 issue of Playboy magazine contains a six-page feature on Henry Miller (pps. 183-185, 246-248). The inclusion was meant as publicity for a new book coming from Playboy Press about Henry Miller, called My Life And Times. The book contained Miller's thoughts and memories on numerous thematic topics, and was illustrated with several photographs. The 1971 article announces a "November 15" street date for the book, but the Bibliography of Primary Sources shows that it was actually given its limited release on December 25, 1971.
The Playboy feature contains excerpts from the book, along with a handful of photographs taken by the book's editor, Bradley Smith. In 1968, Bradley--a professional photographer--had the chance to meet Miller while trying to find contact information for Lawrence Durrell. Inspired by Robert Snyder's Henry Miller Odyssey documentary (which was still in production), Smith conceived the Miller book, which would include dialogue from the film. Miller was hesitant about the project, but managed to provide the requested biographical content over an 18-month period.

The above photograph is of Miller with a nude "guest" to his California home. The woman is credited as Candice Thayer, of whom I could find no information. Candice appears in three photos in this feature: 1) the one above; 2) one of her looking up at the base of the stairs, with a painting of Miller done by Beauford Delaney hanging above; 3) one of her playing ping-pong with Miller.

In the same Playboy article, Miller appears in a colour photograph with his young wife Hoki (whom he'd married in September 1967) and her friend Puko.

Henry is also shown indulging in "innocent horseplay" with Israeli actress Ziva Rodann. Miller and Rodann apparently had some "light romance" at one time, according to a letter Henry wrote to Eve McClure in October 1963 [ref. Always Merry And Bright by Jay Martin, p. 472]. By the looks of this photo (circa 1968-1971) they remained friends. Rodann acted mostly in B-films, it seems, and played Queen Nefertiti in the Batman TV series. I've included another of photo of Ziva Rodann at right, which is not in the Playboy article.

Finally, the profile contains a reproduction of a Miller watercolour painting (called Wawawa?). "Though he often uses symbols [...] Miller says that he has no conscious reason for using them," says the Playboy caption.

Miller, on himself: "There must be something perverse about me. What I mean is that I want to be the opposite of what I am, and yet, to be very frank and honest with you, I'm very happy just as I am. I wouldn't want to change a thing. There it is--a frightful contradiction. I admit it shamelessly. I stress this matter of being versus doing, because it's not just my conflict, it's the conflcit of the modern world. We are at the stage now where we can look upon our activity--not our creation, but our activity, and say it stinks. It is the ruination of our world. This busy-bee activity, this senseless activity. That's what I'm against."

Summary of quote topics in this article: Sex; Pornography; Relationships; Appearance; Women; The Real Miller; Pleasures; Painting; Creating; Writing; Eros; Age; Love; Himself; Living; Death.

All photographs (except of Rodann at right) by Bradley Smith.
Model on Playboy cover is Debbie Hanlon, photographed by Dwight Hooker.