Thursday, March 13, 2008

Quebec, 1928: Prelude To Paris

“All over the States I have wandered, and into Canada and Mexico.”
Henry Miller in Tropic Of Cancer, p. 266.
Quėbec is the name of both a province and a city (Quebec City). It was founded by Europeans in 1608—this year marks its 400th anniversary. It’s one of the few Canadian cities that has a European feel to it. Henry Miller visited Quebec City with his wife June Mansfield in 1928, just a few months before he visited Europe for the first time.

The most contemporary primary source material relating to this short trip to Quebec seems to be a series of postcards and/or letters Henry sent to Emil Conason (a.k.a Emil Cohen a.k.a “Dr. Kronski”) during the excursion. This correspondence with Conason--retained by Emil’s wife Celia—is referenced in Dearborn’s Happiest Man Alive, and its reference seems apparent in Ferguson's Henry Miller: A Life.

Henry’s narrative account is found on pages 274-279 of Nexus. Henry had never been to Europe yet in April 1928. Until the money came through for the passage to France, June suggested that Henry expose himself to a taste of French culture by visiting Quebec with her. “She had all the dope on Quebec, which she thought I’d like better than Montreal. More French, she said” [p. 274]. After about a week, the plan was set in motion: to save money, Henry would hitchhike there, while June would take a train. They would meet at the train station in Montreal.

It was officially Spring, but it was a cold one. With some cash in his pocket as back-up, Henry made his way to Paterson, New Jersey, where he put him thumb to work for any north-bound traffic. Heading in the direction of the White Mountains, he stayed overnight in a hotel in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. On Day Two, he made it near the border and stayed at a hostel before getting a lift straight to Montreal by noon the next day.

This Google map shows the north-bound destination that Miller took to hitch-hike his way to Montreal, Quebec in 1928.


Henry stood in the cold at the Montreal train station for a few hours, waiting for June’s train to pull in. “It was bitter cold. Almost like Russia, I thought. And rather a gloomy-looking city, all in all” [p. 278]. Once June arrived, they took a cab to their hotel, followed by dinner at an English restaurant. “Frightful,” remembered Henry about his meal, “The food was like mildewed cadavers slightly warmed.” June assured him that he’d like Quebec City much better.

Incidentally, a “Montreal bridge” appears in Miller’s dream-like “Into The Nightlife” chapter of Black Spring. This is likely a reference to his memory of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal. The bridge—set against imagery of blizzards and ice floes—is in Henry’s sight when (in his dream) he is asked at the border if there’s anything he needs to declare. Henry: I want to declare that I am a traitor to the human race.” (Black Spring, p. 154].

The most concrete indicator of the date of Henry and June’s Quebec visit is a postcard referenced by Dearborn on page 114 [see her Notes], sent to Emil Conason on May 4, 1928 (having seen the postcards, Dearborn also states in the narrative that the visit took place in May). When Henry sets out hitchhiking in Nexus [p.275], he mentions that Spring is already there. They are in Quebec for ten days [p. 279], so, using the postcard as an marker, the earliest they left there is May 4th, and the latest is May 14, 1928. The trees are already in bloom in New York when they return [p.279].

“In Quebec the snow was piled high and frozen stiff,” writes Henry about the following day, in Nexus. “Walking the streets was like walking between icebergs. Everywhere we went we seemed to bump into flocks of nuns or priests. Lugubrious-looking creatures with ice in their veins. I didn’t think much of Quebec either. We might as well have gone to the North Pole. What an atmosphere in which to relax!” [p. 278].

I don’t have access to Quebec city newspapers for 1928, but I do for Montreal, which is 150 miles away from Quebec and has comparatively similar weather. I consider it unusual for Montreal or Quebec to have this kind of weather in April and especially May. According to Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper from the time, the weather in Montreal was unseasonably “frais” (cool, chilly) from April 21 – 30th, with highs averaging 42-degrees Fahrenheit (+5 Celsius), lows around 30F or –1C. From May 1-5, 1928 (again, this is for Montreal, not Quebec), the temperature rose to highs as mild as 66F (+18C), with a few days of “averses” (showers). Hardly the arctic scenario painted by Miller, who claims that it “must have been 20 degrees warmer” in New York than in Quebec. It’s possible that it had warmed up during their visit, and that the cold snap upon his arrival into Quebec made the most lasting impression.

Although Henry disliked the weather, he loved their hotel and the restaurants. According to Ferguson’s Henry Miller: A Life, the couple stayed at the historic Chateau Frontenac in Quebec (Ferguson provides a few quotes by Miller about their vacation, but doesn’t list his source of information, although, in another footnote, it’s evident that he read Celia Conason’s archive).
LEFT: Chateau Frontenac, 1928; from below the hill it stands on. Photo by Willa Cather.

Henry writes about his excitement about the French food, and especially the wines. “‘I know nothing about wine,’” said Henry to the waiter, looking for a suggestion; Mėdoc, Vouvray, Pommard, Nuits Saint-Georges, Clos-Vougeot, Măcon, Moulin-a-Vėnt, Fleurie: Miller was getting a wine education in Prohibition-less Quebec. He and June liberally spent the money they’d saved on his train ticket, living the high-life: “It almost makes me weep.” [1] He was rosy enough to get back outdoors and enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride through the old streets, [2] as well as catch some vaudeville shows and see an awful film or two. [3] After dinner, he and June sometimes played chess on the indoor balcony of their hotel suite, inviting the bellhop to join them; they even attended a church Mass to please him (Nexus, p. 279). [4]
The Chateau Frontenac, 1928. This was probably taken not long after Henry and June checked out. From the Archives of Willa Cather.
“All in all,” writes Miller of the ten day vacation in Quebec, “it was the laziest, peacefulest vacation I ever spent. I was surprised that Mona took it so well” [p. 279]. Although the real French cooking made a positive impression, Henry still felt that Quebec is a “no-man’s land. The Eskimos should take it over” [p. 279]. But the break had made him “itch” to get back to his novel, Moloch [p. 279], and to feel “no doubt” that he would make it to Spain or France by the Fall [5]. They set sail for Europe in July 1928. [6]

Read my earlier posting about Henry's visit to Montreal in 1969.

[1] Ferguson, Robert. Henry Miller: A Life, p. 160. My impression is that this quote was taken from one of the Conason postcards; [2] Miller, Henry. Nexus, p. 279; Ferguson adds in his biography (p. 160) that this was a two-hour ride; [3] Ferguson again, who provides unsourced quotes of Miller, like him describing the films as "the very worst I have seen anywhere, worse thasn ye south."; [4] Of all of the Miller iographies, Jay Martin's Always Merry And Bright presents the longest and most detailed descriptive narrative of this Quebec vacation; [5] Ferguson, p. 160. Here he specifically quotes a letter to the Conason's; [6] Dearborn, Mary. Happiest Man Alive, p. 114.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


First the Vonnegut connection, now this. I had no idea about this, probably because I read Nexus years ago, and wasn't paying attention to these facts at the time. But it's like we're on some sort of synchronous wavelength.

In connection with the HM Honeymoon...I asked my wife to marry me in Quebec City last winter. We even stayed in the Chateau Frontenac.

(cue dramatic music)

10:26 pm  
Blogger RC said...

(dramatic music)

That is really odd.

9:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife thinks we even called it a "prelude to Paris" at one point.

10:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice post, RC!

Québec City is an excellent destination for honymooners, but preferably during the summer. I got married in April 1973 and my wife found the weather there awfully cold. Of course newlyweds tend to stay longer in their bedroom, so our honeymoon wasn’t that bad, I guess.

Québec City is famous for its French atmosphere, its restaurants and XVIIIth century buildings. I think June Mansfield’s idea of going there with Henry before leaving for Europe was quite appropriate.

Keep up your wonderful blog, RC!

1:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's "honeymooners", of course. I didn't even see that misspelling whem I published my comment, but being 61 years old, I can happily remember Jackie Gleason in "The Honeymooners" (40 TV episodes, 1955-1956).

Take care, RC!

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