Born in the Yorkville section of New York on December 26, 1891,
Henry Miller grew up in Brooklyn, went to
school there, and to this day retains much of his Brooklyn accent.
As a young man he often crossed Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, where
his father had a tailor shop. Until 1930 New York was his home. "I
am a city man through and through; I hate nature, just as I hate
the 'classics.'" Of his early years Miller has written most
lyrically in two sections of Black Spring, "The Fourteenth Ward"
and "The Tailor Shop." The world he depicts is not the "American"
New York of Whitman or Edith Wharton, but the immigrant melting pot
with its teeming neighborhoods, all redolent of the old country. In
this polyglot world Miller learned to speak German before English
and grew up with the sound of Yiddish and Polish in his ears. As a
boy he ran wild in the streets, while his father moved in a
comfortable masculine atmosphere of bars and good eating, with the
easy comradeship of actors, salesmen, and other sporting types. In
his prime Henry's father appears to have been gregarious,
easygoing, and bibulous; later Henry nostalgically envied his
father's way of life. Henry's mother, who was rigidly conventional,
seems to have inspired the rebel in him; he never had a kind word
to say of her. There was a streak of insanity in the family,
amusingly represented in Tante Melia, pathetically in Henry's
Like many artists in America, Miller had to combat not only public opinion but also his own sense of shame, ingrained despite his better judgment, at having failed to earn money. In Black Spring Miller writes, "In the past every member of our family did something with his hands. I'm the first idle son of a bitch with a glib tongue and a bad heart." But elsewhere he says there were poets and musicians among his German ancestors.
Black Spring, published in 1936, two years after Tropic of Cancer, deals with many of the same themes, but in a different mood. "I am Chancre, the crab, which moves sideways and backwards and forwards at will. I move in strange tropics," Miller announces, explaining the connection between this and the earlier book. And the black spring of the title is another metaphor of the world's blight. But he is less fierce now, less hungry, more euphoric. There is less sex and obscenity, less action and violence. Instead of taking place only in the immediate present, the narrative moves in time and place, from Paris to memories of Brooklyn and New York and on to other planes, to reverie and fantasia. There is more delirium than cancer now, more dream, hallucination, and schizophrenia, as Miller explores different modes and levels of perception. The subject of Black Spring is really the imagination in all its forms, especially the creative imagination.
Each of its ten self-contained sections is an exercise in a different medium of art or the imagination, or in several media. "The Angel Is My Watermark!" for instance investigates literary inspiration, the vision of the mad, and watercolor technique. It begins with Miller possessed by "the dictation" that goes on in his head, beyond his control. He can only write down what is being dictated to him until finally it ceases, leaving him exhausted. He then turns to a fascinating book on art and insanity, which prompts him to do a watercolor. The rest of the piece explains how a watercolor happens, through a process as fortuitous as his writing. "When you're an instinctive watercolorist everything happens according to God's will."
Another selection ("Into the Night Life") is the scenario of a nightmare. Vividly pictorial, it is like a surrealist film, full of irrational sequences, screaming terrors, Freudian guilt and logic. Like any good nightmare it is experienced: one is there, being pursued, unable to run, locked in, frantically trying to find a way out. The world tilts and the scene shifts constantly in this "Coney Island of the mind," where memories are jumbled together with Gothic visions in a world of crazy symbols that make sense.
Miller has written a great deal about the creative process elsewhere, but never so effectively. Black Spring demonstrates the creative imagination at work on all levels. "In ordinary waking life," Miller explains in his surrealistic vocabulary, "the author suffers from normal vision but in the frontispiece he renders himself myopic in order to grasp the immediacy of the dream plasm. By means of the dream technique he peels off the outer layers of his geologic mortality and comes to grips with his true mantic self, a non-stratified area of semi-liquid character. Only the amorphous side of his nature now possesses validity. By submerging the visible I he dives below the threshold of his schizophrenic habit patterns. He swims joyously, ad lib., in the amniotic fluid, one with his amoebic self." Miller believes that writing should be as spontaneous and unconscious as possible. Hence his own writing is full of free association and improvisation. There are passages of automatic writing--cadenzas, he sometimes calls them--when the dictation possesses him. Miller at the typewriter is like a centaur; he becomes one with the machine, and works in furious bursts. The result is a succession of discontinuous virtuoso passages that show where he sat down to write and where he left off.
Stylistically Black Spring is a dazzling book, the work of a rampant imagination intoxicated with words. Miller is a poet of reckless abandon, his language exuberant and prodigal, often used for sound rather than meaning. Fond of jargon and parody, he readily spins off into nonsense and jabberwocky. "Jabberwhorl Cronstadt," a verbal caricature of a friend, parodies his multisyllabic pontification and turns it into nonsense. During the course of his conversation, Jabberwhorl grows progressively drunk, and the language reels: "' the great vertiginous vertebration the zoospores and the leucocytes the wamroths and the holenlindens. every one's a poem. The jellyfish is a poem too--the finest kind of poem. You poke him here, you poke him there, he slithers and slathers, he's dithy and clabberous, he has a colon and intestines, he's vermiform and ubisquishous.'"
As that final pun indicates, Jabberwhorl's jellyfish is descended from James Joyce as well as Lewis Carroll. "Jabberwhorl Cronstadt," indeed the whole of Black Spring, is full of Joycean passages. Like the great parodist Miller writes not in one style, but in many. Not only is each section of Black Spring written in a different style, but individual sections are written in a chameleon style that borrows its constantly changing colors from a dozen sources. Besides Joyce the authors he most frequently resembles are Proust and Whitman. Like the Tropics, Black Spring is Proustian in its view of coexistent time and place stimulated by memory and the senses; Miller's writing is evocative and nostalgic. His affinity to Whitman is more fundamental, for Whitman contributes to his stance as well as his style. "For me the book is the man," Miller declares, "and my book is the man I am, the confused man, the negligent man, the reckless man, the lusty, obscene, boisterous, thoughtful, scrupulous, lying, diabolically truthful man that I am." Miller's rhetoric is like Whitman's, with long rhythmic lines pulsing along through present participles. His description of the Seine could be scanned as Whitmanesque verse:
"this still jet rushing on from out of a million billion roots, this still mirror bearing the clouds along and stifling the past, rushing on and on and on while between the mirror and the clouds moving transversally I, a complete corporate entity, a universe bringing countless centuries to a conclusion, I and this that passes beneath me and this that floats above me and all that surges through me...
Like Whitman too, Miller is fond of catalogues. Black Spring is full of them. One catalogue of American names runs on for two full pages, recapitulating the American scene from American Can to the Banks of the Wabash.