Saturday, December 20, 2008

December 25 - The Day Before Miller

I apologize for the meager December output, but I've been toiling excessively for The Paying Job. Now the holidays are upon us and I will be busy enjoying tropical sun somewhere (this is not a normal Christmas for me, but very much welcome). That means I've got this Miller blog on hold until December 30th or so.

and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a louse
Henry Miller was born on December 26, 1891. This year he turns 117. But, way back on December 25, 1891, Henry Fetus was doing just fine where he was, oblivious to the filth and beauty beyond the womb; ignorant to the fact that he was about to be hurled into the fray-in-progress.

"My first [Paradise on earth] was in my mother's womb, where I fought to remain forever, but the forceps finally prevailed. It was a marvelous period in the womb and I shall never forget it. I had almost everything one could ask for--except friends." [1]

Children unwrapped Christmas presents throughout the United States during that morning of the 25th, including New York youngsters on East 85th Street, where Louise Miller rested her hands on her swollen belly, awaiting her first born. 100 miles away in Camden, New Jersey, Walt Whitman--a man Miller would greatly admire--was suffering in bed, finding it painfully difficult to breathe, and constantly desiring water. Horace Traubel kept a detailed transcription of Whitman's December 25th, as he and others tended to the ailing, 72-year old poet. That night, Whitman made the request of a peach--with sugar. He would die three months later.

Midnight comes around. December 25th clocks into December 26th, 1891. For years, Miller beleived he had been born thirty-minutes past midnight, and blamed his mother for her "cluthcing womb," denying him of a December 25th birth. "It always seemed to me that I was meant to be the sort of individual that one is destined to be by virtue of being born on the 25th of December. Admiral Dewey was born on that day [*actually, Miller is wrong] and so was Jesus Christ...perhaps Krishnamurti too, for all I know. Anyway, that's the sort of guy I was intended to be" [2] The missed day, he felt, altered the configuration of his astrological destiny. After this missed opportunity, Henry saw no reason to move from his Paradise.

"[T]hey had a hell of a time bringing me out of the womb. I can understand that perfectly. Why budge? Why come out of a nice warm place, a cosy retreat in which everything is offered you gratis?" (Tropic of Capricorn, p.10). Finally, on December 26th, 1891, Henry Valentine was born around 12 noon. It would be another 45 years before Henry would learn that he was not born just past midnight. When Conrad Moricand read his star charts in 1936 and insisted that he must have been born at noon, Henry confirmed the revelation with his parents. [3]

Six days after Henry's birth, New York's Ellis Island began operation as America's greatest port of entry for new immigrants. June Mansfield would be proceesed through Ellis Island sixteen years later.

Happy Holidays.



[1] Miller, Henry. Book Of Friends v.I; p. 27. [2] Miller, Henry. Tropic of Capricorn, p. 61; [3] Orend, Karl. 2005. The Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons. Alyscamps Press, 2005; p.172.

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.