Saturday, October 18, 2008

City College Drop-Out

In 1909, Henry Miller attended City College in New York. But his class attendance was short-lived: in less than three months he dropped out of the program. Shortly afterward, he entered the working world as a clerk at a cement company in Manhattan.

Miller had done well in high school, graduating near the top of his class [1]. He applied for a German scholarship from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, on the encouragement of his high school German teacher [2]. The scholarship was won, and awaited him that autumn [3]. However, the bane of financial consideration forced plans to change. “At the last minute my father decided he could not afford to send me to Cornell,” wrote Miller in Joey (Vol. III, Book Of Friends; p.57).

City College offered a manageable alternative: it was local and it was government-supported, requiring no tuition [4]. Henry signed up for an Arts II course [5]. He was just a few months away from his 18th birthday when he began classes in September 1909 [6]. German was of course on his curriculum, as was Gym (he was very much into athletics at the time) [7]. Latin, Physics and Chemistry were also among the courses he took [5]. For someone who read the encyclopaedia for kicks [6], the prospect of learning at a higher level must have been exciting.

The postcard above (undated) shows the entrance to City College (Source: NY Public Library Digital Archive, digital record ID #1016914).

And then, for what I presume was an English class [8], Henry was required to read a very long poem that began:

LO I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske, As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds, Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske, For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds, And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds; Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds To blazon broad emongst her learned throng: Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.

Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599) was an English poet who was known in his day as a “prince of poets” [9] and even today is revered in some Cambridge circles for his “use of language, his unbounded imagination, his immense classical and religious learning, his keen understanding of moral and political philosophy, and his unerring ability to synthesize and, ultimately, to delight" [9]. The Faerie Queene (1590) is an epic poem about knights and virtue, and is regarded as Spenser’s greatest masterpiece.

“To think that this huge epic is still considered indispensable reading in any college curriculum!” Miller would write years later, still carrying a hatred for Spenser’s masterpiece. “Only the other day I dipped into it again, to reassure myself that I had not made a grave error of judgment. Let me confess that today it seems even more insane to me than when I was a lad of eighteen. I am talking, be it understood, of ‘the poets' poet,’ as the English call him. What a poor second to Pindar!" [10].

The “grave error of judgement” Henry refers to was his decision to drop out of City College, with Faerie Queene as his apparent catalyst. “How well I remember the day I quit college!” [10]. But Spenser’s fantasy tale was merely symbolic of the educational program at City. Miller is said to have been “disgusted with the curriculum” [11]. By ditching City College, he had “rebelled against [their] educational methods” [7]. However, in a 1938 letter to Henri Fluchere, Miller admitted that he’d also found the campus “intolerably Jewish” [6]. Since the end of the 19th century, the new wave of poor Jewish immigrants to New York had been able to benefit from the free education offered by City College. At the turn-of-the-century, most of these Jewish students were actually from Germany [12]. Young Miller did not find the common ground (German background), but instead focused on the difference--depending on interpretation, this reveals an anti-Jewish phobia in young Miller or, as some biographers suggest, an outsider feeling, that he did not belong. (a year after Henry quit, a Jewish kid named Emanuel Goldenberg attended City College; he later went on to fame as Edward G. Robinson).

This photograph of City College circa 1908 is available on-line as a huge hi-res image at Shorpy, originating from the George Grantham Bain Collection. By looking at this old photograph in such a large scale, it's easier to project oneself into the time and place that has been captured on film.

Miller's time at City College was over within a few months. The exact length of time is uncertain. Miller himself confuses the fact by stating “two months” in one source [7] and “three months” in another [10] (also, in a diary excerpt from Harry Kiakis in 1970, he quotes Henry saying "three months" [14]). Mary Dearborn says “six weeks” [6] and Robert Ferguson says “one semester” [5]. Whichever is true, it was over by December. By resigning, Henry became one of the approximately 90% of City College students who never graduated from the institution at the time [13].

Now adrift in the world of menial labour, Henry finally had to grab hold of a clerk job with the Atlas Portland Cement Company by year’s end. He turned 18 on December 26, 1909.


POSTSCRIPT: Curiously, he would later refer to the (unrequited) love of his youth, Cora Seward, as “Una Gifford” in his books. “Una” happens to be the name of the female lead in Spenser’s Faerie Queene—the primary love interest of a heroic Knight, who appears to him in lustful dreams.


[1] University of Texas at Austin. Henry Miller: An Inventory of His Art Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center:; [2] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright, p. 18; [3] Miller, Henry. Joey (Vol. III, Book Of Friends), p. 57; [4] College Data website: ; [5] Ferguson, Robert. Henry Miller: A Life; p. 15. Ferguson footnotes details of Miller's course by referring to a correspondance with Thomas F Jennings at City College (June 20, 1989), implying that this information comes from the College archives; [6] Dearborn, Mary. Happiest Man Alive, p. 42; [7] Miller, Henry. Autobio chronology posted at the website for the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Miller re: 1909 - "Began period of rigorous athletic discipline that lasted seven years"; [8] None of the biographers specifically mentions an English class, but I assume that one was on the cirriculum if he was being issued English poetry to read; [9] Edmund Spenser Home Page. 'Biography': ; [10] Miller, Henry. "To Read or Not to Read." Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, p. 158; [11] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright, p. 18 - Martin is paraphrasing Miller's sentiments from letters to Huntington Cairns and Henri Fluchere, both from 7-23-1938 (ref p. 514); [12] Rudy, Willis. 1977. The College of the City of New York; p. 174; [13] Rosenthal, A.M. 1994. "An American Promise." New York Times, Oct. 2, 1994--The statistic here is for the year 1902: "30,000 students had been admitted but only 2,730 graduated." So, the number I present for 1909 is an estimate based on these numbers and an assumption that the seven intervening years did not make a huge difference in dropout rates. [14] Kiakis, Harry. 2007. "Henry Miller on the Young, Japan, Films." (April 11, 1970). Published in Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, v.4, 2007; p. 155.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't get through Spenser either, and I'm an English professor!

12:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whether spenser was great or terrible or boring or inspiring to you, me, miller or anyone else is irrelevant. spenser, like miller, wrote in his time and of his time and in the linguistic currency of his time, or at least what was expected, enjoyed or merely tolerated. miller's opinion about anything is his least interesting quality; it's his holding-forth on the enjoyment of life and all it's offerings that make him so wonderful and funny and compelling and fulfilling.

12:31 am  
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