Sunday, December 07, 2008

Dragging His Heart To 181 Devoe Street

Henry Miller was raised in the 14th Ward of Brooklyn (Williamburg), but his feet often took him over to adjacent 17th Ward of Greenpoint, at Brooklyn’s northern tip. The exact destination was usually the same: 181 Devoe Street, between Humboldt and Graham. This was the parental home of his first love, Cora Seward. Cora left a deep mark on Miller, appearing throughout his lifetime of writings as either Cora Seward or 'Una Gifford.' This intense but unrequited love for Cora will be explored in a post of its own, some day. For now, suffice it to say that she was his teenage infatuation; Henry took frequent melancholic pilgrimages to her home at 181 Devoe, around 1907-1911.

Google map of 181 Devoe St.

Henry met Cora at his Eastern District high school in 1907, when he was 15. “[W]ith the advent of Cora Seward, it was impossible for me to look at another girl,” wrote Miller in his first Book of Friends [p.62]. “But whenever she gazed at him,” describes biographer Jay Martin, “with disconcerting shyness he was absolutely tongue-tied.” [1] He would sometimes see her at a party, and trembled, even stumbled, whenever he was lucky enough to snag a dance with her. [2;4]

Cora lived in Greenpoint, “a neighborhood which was not far removed from our neighbourhood but which was different, more glamorous, more mysterious.” [3] Unable to properly express himself to Cora, Henry settled for being in her presence vicariously, by walking the Greenpoint streets that were familiar to her. “It was the same walk night after night—a long, long walk to Cora’s house on Devoe Street and then home. I never stopped to ring the door bell and have a chat with her. I was content to merely walk slowly past her home in the hope of seeing her shadow in the parlor window. I never did, not once in the three or four years during which I performed this crazy ritual.” [4] It took almost an hour to walk from Decatur Street to 181 Devoe. [5] “He prefers to take a long walk so that at the end of an hour he may find himself, as though by accident, directly beneath her window. He fears to linger there more than a minute lest the door open suddenly and one of her family, perhaps a younger sister, espy him and make fun of him.” [6] Often, on his way back home, he “would yell her name aloud, imploringly, as if to beg her to grant me the favor of an audience from on high.” [2]

Over a decade later, in his first semi-autobiographical novel (Moloch), Henry would write that he could not think of Greenpoint without “a vicious tug at his heart. Maujer, Conselyea, Humboldt Streets; the streets that Cora had once trod. These streets, forlorn now, were consecrated to HER. If the truth were known, he had even kissed the flagging of these very streets. Late at night, of course, and in a moment of terrible anguish.” [6] (incidentally, Henry writes about a majestic impression that Humboldt Street--which intersects with Devoe--had made on him as a child, in Tropic of Capricorn, pp.152-154).

At the end of high school, Henry had a group of friends who dubbed themselves the Xerxes Society—most of them lived in Greenpoint. In Moloch, Miller writes of friends getting him drunk in order to serenade Cora Seward outside her home (in the book, he uses the name “Cora” but says she lives on nearby Maujer Street). “In front of her home they stop, drag Moloch [Miller] into the middle of the street, and perform a mystic ceremony. Their shouting and laughter is enough to wake the dead. But no one appears at the window. Not a shade is drawn” [Moloch, p.69]. Henry then approaches the stoop to make a “mad, fantastic” speech---“Everything that he has kept locked in his breast pours forth” [p.70]. The speech is met with applause from his friends, but there’s not a peep from Cora.

Henry’s infatuation eventually disgusted his friends [7], who one by one disappeared from his life. Without Cora or friends, Henry re-directed his energies into bicycling. He would ride anywhere and everywhere—except for Greenpoint [7].

Henry’s final visit to Cora at 181 Devoe Street came around 1913, when he was 21. It was only the second or third time he’d ever rung her doorbell, but he wanted to say goodbye before he took off for the West, possibly forever. “Instead of inviting me in, she stepped outdoors and escorted me to the gate which opened up onto the sidewalk, and there we stood for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes exchanging pointless remarks” [2]. He told her all about The West, but bit his tongue from saying he might send for her one day. With regretful lack of courage, Henry politely shook her hand instead of hugging her and giving her a final passionate kiss. He walked away, never once turning his head, imaging hopefully that she was “standing at the gate, following me with her eyes … wait[ing] until I had rounded the corner before rushing to her room, flinging herself on the bed, and sobbing fit to break her heart” [2].

The following year, Cora Seward was married to a scientist.


This NexTag real estate listing seems to suggest that 181 Devoe Street still exists (and is valued at around $725,000). Using the amazing Google Street View feature, I am able to virtually stroll down these same streets that young Henry once did--right past 181 Devoe and back again. This Google Street feature only gives an approximate address, so # 181 can't be identified this way. However, in Book Of Friends v.I (1976), there is a photograph of 181 Devoe, under which Henry has captioned "where my first love lived" [p.49]. The image matches up to the frame grab I've provided above. 181 Devoe should be the taller white building with the beig stoop (next to the shorter building). Below is a frame-grab of the building and the stoop on which Henry drunkenly declared his love for Cora Seward. Confirmation of this is welcome from any Brooklynites out there.

If you've got a lot of time to kill and want to use the powers of the internet to get into the head of tragically love-lorn Henry Miller at age 18, use the Google Street View feature (linked above) to virtually wander the streets of Devoe, Humboldt, Conselyea, etc while listening online to this: "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland"(this version appropriately recorded in 1910), a song that Henry would play on the piano while thinking of Cora (ref. Book Of Friends I, p.100).

"Dreaming of yoooou, That's all I dooooo..." That boy had it bad. Seriously.


[1] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright: The Life of Henry Miller; p.24; [2] Miller, Henry. Stand Still Like The Hummingbird, p. 47-49; [3] Miller, Henry, Tropic Of Capricorn, p. 153; [4] Miller, Henry. Book Of Friends (v.I), p.96; [5] Miller, Henry. My Life & Times (hardcover), p.185; [6] Miller, Henry. Moloch, or This Gentile World, p. 68; [7] Miller, Henry. Book of Friends (v.II): My Bike & Other Friends, p.105-107.


Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

Great post.

Love that google street view!

6:07 pm  
Blogger Gene S said...

I grew up in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint section of Brooklyn in the 1960s.
I was born on Maujer Street (mentioned in Capricorn and Nexus), betweeen Humbolt and Graham, which put me parallel with Cora Seward on DeVoe Street, though of course I didn't know it at the time, and in any event she was long gone.
I attented Henry Miller;s alma mater, Eastern District High School, albeit 50 or 60 years later.
No wonder that when, as a teenager, I discovered Miller, I felt such a closeness and kinship with the man.
And yes, when my own young heart was broken, I dragged myself up adn down past the house at 181 DeVoe Street.
Incidentally, we always considered DeVoe Street a part of Williamsburg rather than Greenpoint, the border line having always been a matter of dispute among locals.
Now, so many years later, I see that I still true to the Miller spirit, wasting company time surfing for my favorite writers on the internet.
Thanks for a great site!

2:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superb post! What a beautiful touch with that song at the end. It really recreates the atmosphere of those days.
Anyone who ever felt this way will recognize himself in Miller.

4:36 am  
Blogger RC said...

Thanks everyone, and thanks Eugene, for sharing your personal recollection of those streets.

11:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm dumbfounded. 181 Devoe St. was my grandmothr's house. I lived there when I was an infant and then spent untold hours there every week. And of course the whole family was there for Sunday dinner. My fondist childhood memories revolve around 181 D. I'm sending this to all my cousins.

3:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a P.S. to my previous comment. I will confirm that the photo you show is indeed 181 Devoe Street. As I mentioned I spent a great deal of time there until my grandmother sold the house in the early '50s. In addition I passed by there a few years ago and took a photo from across the send to the cousins. Yours is much better. Thank you.

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