Friday, January 04, 2008

Merle Armitage, By Design

"I am often amused by overzealous souls who are going to 'do something for art.' These people are starkly ignorant. Art is an elusive divinity." --- Merle Armitage, Accent On Life [1965], p. 145.

Miller makes reference to dozens of names in Big Sur And The Oranges Of Hiernoymus Bosch; many of them artists. In 1957, the year Big Sur was published, the media was refering to the isolated Calfornia community as an "artists' colony" (Time, June 10, 1957). Although Miller makes a point to deny this description in his book (he seems mostly to take exception to the use of the term "colony"), there is no denying that many of his scattered Big Sur neighbours were indeed artists. Merle Armitage was one such man.

Merle Armitage (1893-1975) was born in Iowa but eventually made his way to New York City in his 20s. It was there that he began working an an impresario (theatre promoter), a profession that served him well when he relocated to the Los Angeles area in the 1920s. As a child, he developed a love for Art (and was collecting it at age 12) that included an appreciation for innovative advertizing art and design (he worked briefly in advertizing for the Packard Motor Co.). As a concert promoter in California, he used modern design techniques in posters he created himself, in order to draw "low brow" audiences to "high brow" events such as ballet and opera. In the 1930s, he began writing and designing his own books, mostly on the subject of Art and artists. It was as a publication designer that he made his greatest reputation. During the time that Miller lived at Big Sur, Armitage was the Art Director of Look Magazine (1949-1954) [ Look covers from 1950], and president of the American Institue of Graphic Arts (1950-51).

In Chapter 3 of Big Sur ("The Chama Serial"), Miller writes about the fantastic stories he entertained his children with: the adventures of a rich, worldy little girl named Chama. Although Miller made up the Shirley Temple-like plot, Chama was actually the daughter of Merle Armitage. Armitage had been over for dinner with his family, and Chama had captured the imagination of young Val [p.78].
During one of the nightly stories, Miller tells the kids about Chama's father. "[He] was once an impresario, a very famous one, too." Miller goes on to explain that an impresario takes "famous singers around the world." Miller amps the story up for their entertainment by saying that Armitage got to know Zulus and Pygmies through these travels, and brought the opera singers Caruso, Tetrazzani, Melba, Titta Ruffo, and Gigli to meet Indians in the Far West [p.85-86].

Interestingly, Chama appears to have entered adulthood with an interest in the magic realism with which Miller employed in making up his stories about her. In 1965, Chama Armitage wrote a 12-page book called Surrealism And Magic Realism, which was published by the California imprint Manzanita Press. Her original artwork (pre-1974) appears in the Merle Armitage Collection at Arizona State University. She appears to have married an man by the Italian name of Rogate [ref.], which possibly helps explain how she came to translate a Tarot book from Italian in 1978.


Beyond this pretty obscure association with Henry Miller, Armitage is significant in that he applied his book design talents to Miller's Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder, published in 1948. The story of this relationship with Miller is told by Armitage in an article "The Man behind the Smile: Doing Business with Henry Miller," published in Texas Quarlterly 4 (Winter 1961), and re-printed in Conversations With Henry Miller (1994, University Press of Mississippi).

Armitage first met Miller when Val and Tony were "babies." He and his wife popped in at his cabin after reading one of Miller's "all and sundry" appeals for money and goods, published in a small literary magazine. Some of Henry's paintings were on display on the walls of his home. Noted art fan Armitage: "[They] seemed to be an odd mixture of what might be produced by a Paul Klee influencing Gaugin. They were free and tight at the same time, an expression of a man who wanted to portray many things without an adequate technical equipment. But colorful, and right for his place."

When Armitage explained that, besides being an impresario, he also designed books, Henry replied "Does a book have to be designed? [...] A book is a book, and I don't see how you can do much about that." Even after Armitage had a few of his books sent to Miller, the response was "I do not know what to make of them, they are so crisp and definite and compelling. I like European books, they are mellow, and more decorative and have the feel of old castles and tradition. Your books have no tradition." Armitage felt Miller was irrationally clutching to the past, and argued "Today will be tomorrow's tradition, provided we do not imitate the past." Henry still didn't get it (which is pretty surprising for someone whose writing and painting were meant to be creative projects unbound by tradition).

Six months later, Henry was having increased financial difficulty, made none the easier by the fact that seventeen magazine publishers had passed on his short story, The Smile At The Foot of the Ladder. Being a good guy, Armitage bought the manuscript from Henry for $500, confident that he could get it published and make a profit to further pass along to Miller. He got a distribtuion deal through Duell, Sloan And Pearce, designed the book himself, had Henry write an epilogue and Edwin Corle write an intro about Henry. The first edition sold out within a year, and Henry was forwarded another $1,685 in profits.

At right, the cover page of the first Japanese edition, with a "black sun" design by Armitage.

When Miller first received the book at his home, on May 17, 1948, he immediately sent Armitage a letter of gratitude: "For a long time now I've lacked the enthusiasm with the appearance of a new book. When the Tropic Of Cancer came out I was dazzled, of course--it was my first published book and I had waited almost four years to see it printed. With this one of yours, that same unforgettable thrill shook me. I actually had tears in my eyes turning the pages."

Armitage must have been pleased to have seen Henry come around like this, but his essay also contains many critical views of him as a person. He believed that Miller displayed an arrogant ignorance about the world. They butted heads on the subject of America, and Armitage--an advertising man at heart--was hardly impressed when Miller told him once, "American advertising really is excrement." Armitage lays an arrow into Miller in his essay: "Few men are so unable to see the truth, or face it."

The bitterness from Armitage seems best explained by the anecdote he finishes with. Although the Smile Armitage collaborated on was a success, and went on to be published in other countries, Miller later had his story published by a New York publisher in January 1959. It was passed off as a first edition, with no reference to Armitage or the real first edition. Armitage is clearly offended by this when writing about it two years later. In the Armitage first edition, he'd arranged to have paintings of clowns by master artists such as Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec included in the layout. Miller had jokingly written to Armitage: "Of course, I shall never forgive you for not including one of my clowns." The New York "first edition" includes just that: a clown watercolour by Miller. Maybe he wasn't kidding after all.

A page from the Armitage-designed cookbook, Fit For A King.

More biographical information: Bobolink Books; Jay Satterfield; Merle Armitage Papers.
Samples of his work: Bobolink Books; Optos Books - Fit For A King.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


More on Miller's disdain for American book design can be found in his essay titled Literature as a Dead Duck (Chicago Review - 1996).

Your elucidation of the characters found in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is even more enlightening, I think, than your fascinating page-by-page approach to Nexus.

This is great work!

7:57 pm  
Blogger Jim Kelly said...

I was given a copy of this book as a youth and it affected me at the time in ineffable ways but through the attrition of years, I lost my copy. Later, in my sixth decade I recalled that book of my youth and essayed to revisit whatever had moved me two score years ago, so I searched for it online, seeking a first edition to honor its place in my past. Seeking online for one, I found disparate dates touted as the first edition but the Merle Armitage edition seemed the most elegant and venerable, so I purchased it. I have not cracked the cover to revisit my youthful enthusiasm, but I am gratified to learn herein that the origin of my copy, and to know that its original purchase price ($5) was shared with the author.

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