“This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.”
~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
When I wrote my first novella (Euro Trippy, check it out on Amazon), which was faintly inspired by my exposure to Henry Miller over the years, I happened to check how well, or how poorly, Henry Miller was represented in our (US) public libraries and I was shocked by his total absence on the shelves.
For the sake of comparison, if you were to check Irish public libraries for James Joyce, or British public libraries for DH Lawrence, you would find that Joyce and Lawrence, both of whom wrote about sex in their works in a way that was equally shocking for the time, are fully represented whereas Henry Miller, in our country is not.
Miller’s vanishing from the public discourse and canon corresponds with a total and utter neglect of Miller in English departments. In one of the more recent biographies of Henry Miller, Mary Dearborn writes: “Miller’s writing is difficult to evaluate; he has, for instance, received almost no serious academic criticism. His works strike a kind of emotional raw nerve: readers tend to be passionate in their responses, either positive or negative.”
That said, five biographies were written about Henry Miller but these books shy away from a full assessment of the work, the life taking precedence over the oeuvre. Of the critical works, there are about two dozen, whose scarcity shows Miller is indeed fading from the American literary landscape.
Having been trained as a literary historian by GAM Janssens whose efforts put many forgotten American literary figures on the map, by means of dissertations and biographies that were published by American university presses, I was, at first, convinced, that I needed to write another Miller biography, but I changed my mind, fearing that Miller’s colorful and interesting life in Paris and Big Sur would once again overshadow the merit of his most important work.
As I dug deeper and pondered my defense of Henry Miller, or rather, my investigation into his oeuvre, I realized I needed a multi-pronged approach, surveying Miller’s canon “worthiness”, his legacy and his American/European predecessors and heirs.
Secondly, there should be a chapter on Miller and the gender politics in the US, and in particular, the second wave of feminism, which damaged his reputation significantly. As a woman writing about Miller, I can feel the attacks coming, for how can I reconcile the misogyny of Miller’s work with my own gender identity as a woman?
Thirdly, I need to discuss at length how Miller fits inside the literary and aesthetic traditions of both Europe and the US, and in particular, his affinity with Modernism and Postmodernism, making him not only a member of the avant-garde (in a way that his more famous contemporaries were not) but also a trailblazer for genres such as creative fiction, memoir, New Journalism and the anti-novel.
Fourthly, I need to survey the theme of Henry Miller and sex, but also sex and gender identity in American literature and sex in American (popular) culture. As a European, but also as someone who grew up in the Netherlands where attitudes towards sex are vastly different from the American reality, I hope to prove my thesis that from the beginning of America’s founding, this country has had a repressed and squeamish attitude towards sex, which has led, on the one hand, to a kind of sexlessness and notion of an almost pathological obsession with temperance/abstinence, and on the other hand, to a level of excess and the commodification of the act of sex, which shows America’s adolescence in this area. We may have had a sexual revolution, Woodstock and a Summer of Love, but in some ways, America still hasn’t grown up around the issue of sex, which complicates and blocks our understanding and assessment of Henry Miller and his legacy. This plays straight into Miller’s neglect by the American academy. In a context where classrooms have been turned into “safe spaces” and where professors may have to warn their students for shocking passages or texts, Henry Miller remains a fringe author, even though his early work stood up to the scrutiny of figures such as Ezra Pound and TS Eliot.
Finally, part of Henry Miller’s obscurity lies in the unevenness of his work. While his early work has, in my view, the artistic merit that equals the merit of authors such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, his later work was a departure from his Modernist roots and, influenced by his growing interest in Buddhism, attained a rather soft focus. While inspirational and interesting, Miller adopted the identity of the sage and life philosopher, which made these works less interesting from a canonical or aesthetic perspective. And then again, a work like Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch was what Walden was to Thoreau, so I feel obligated to address some of the later work to round out the artistic identity and importance of Henry Miller as a mainstream and important author of twentieth century literature.
I need your help. While my GoFundMe campaign is there to keep me going and fund the most basic need(s) to keep this project going, I am an independent scholar and that can be a handicap. As an academic orphan I’m trying to find a host institution, whether in Europe or America, with whose English/American Studies department I can affiliate myself as a guest scholar (no salary/stipend). Writing in isolation without a sounding board can also be problematic, so I’m looking for an academic peer or mentor (in that department) who is willing to read my stuff and give feedback where possible. Please contact me if you have any leads, suggestions or ideas in this area.
To give any prospective takers an idea of my work thus far, here is a list of my publications and related academic work:
Dutch for Reading Knowledge. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2012
Euro Trippy, A Novella About Midlife Crisis, Henry Miller and Living Large, Amazon, 2012
Verstilde stemmen en verzwegen levens: Een Indische familiegeschiedenis. Translated and adapted for the Dutch market by Inez Hollander, Amsterdam: Atlas, 2009
Silenced Voices: Uncovering a Colonial Family’s History in Indonesia. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008
Ontwaken uit de Amerikaanse Droom (memoir), Amsterdam: Archipel/ Imprint Arbeiderspers, 2004
The Road from Pompey’s Head: The Life and Work of Hamilton Basso. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999
– “Social Media Scripts in The Chinese Wall.” Short Film Studies, volume 5, number 1 2015.
– “De vergeten vrouwen van de Nederlandse literatuur,” De Gulden Passer, Fall 2011.
– Book Review of Eric Jones’s Slaves & Concubines: A History of the Female Underclass in Dutch Asia, Oxford Journals, Spring 2011
– “Een nieuwe dageraad in Amerika,” Radio Nederland (Wereldomroep), 2008
– “Verstilde stemmen en verzwegen levens: Een Indische familiegeschiedenis,” Biografie Bulletin, Summer 2008
– “Between Memory and Myth: Thematic Connections between Novels of the Dutch East Indies and the American South” in Dutch Studies conference proceedings, 2008.
– “The New Emperor’s New Clothes,” Consortium News, May 11th, 2007.
– Profile Hamilton Basso (1904-1964) Louisiana State University Press edition of Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary, Ed. Joseph M. Flora, 2007.
– “Een immigrantenidenteit is een badge of honor: allochtoon zijn in Amerika,” Idee,
(magazine of Dutch political party D’66), September 2006.
– “Dutch Disease or European Dilemma? The Geert Mak Lecture Tour,” The Netherland-America Foundation Newsletter, Fall 2006.
– “Homelessness Hits Home,” In The Fray Magazine, August 7th, 2006.
– “We Dig Gerard Reve,” NRC Handelsblad, July 4th, 2006.
– “The East-West Divide: Is Multatuli’s Max Havelaar a Topical Novel Anno 2005?” Berkeley Language Center Spring 2006 Newsletter.
– “Learning Dutch the Fast Way: a Review of ‘Home in on Holland’, the Direct Dutch Methodology”, Dutch Crossing, A Journal of Low Countries Studies, Winter 2005.
– “Martha Gellhorn: Femme Fatale of American Letters,” Re-reading ”The American Century”: Essays on Twentieth-Century American Literature, Culture and Biography, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004.
– “Staren naar het plafond,” Zaterdag Bijvoegsel, NRC Handelsblad, March 8th, 2003
– “Haunted,” The Philosophical Mother (webzine), 2003.
– “Food for Thought,” Coloring Book: An Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers, Pittsburgh: Rattlecat Press, 2003
– “Thomas Wolfe and Marcel Proust: The Importance of Smell in Look Homeward, Angel.” Thomas Wolfe Review, 2001
– “Anne Sexton.” Lexicon: Post-War Literatures in English. Groningen: Martinus Nijhoff Uitgevers, 1998
– “Paris in My Own Backyard: Hamilton Basso.” Literary New Orleans in the Modern World. Ed. Richard S. Kennedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998
-“Carson McCullers.” Lexicon: Post-War Literatures in English. Groningen: Martinus Nijhoff Uitgevers, 1997
– “A Tale of Two Cities: An Analogy Between Thomas Wolfe’s Exile in the American City and European City.” Thomas Wolfe Review, 1996
– “Home is Where the Heart is: Small Town Experiences in the Fiction of Thomas Wolfe and Hamilton Basso.” The Small Town in America: A Multidisciplinary Visit. Ed. Hans Bertens and Theo D’Haen. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1995
– “In Search of Hamilton Basso: Rediscovering Forgotten Authors.” The Pursuit of Happiness en de paradox van de vrijheid. Ed. Hans Bak. Nijmegen: Nijmegen University Press, 1994
– “Thomas Wolfe and Hamilton Basso: A Story Never Told.” Thomas Wolfe Review, 1993
-“From Riches to Rags: A Literary Reading of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Tropes of Revolution: Writers’ Reactions to Real and Imagined Revolutions. Ed. Cedric Barfoot and Theo D’Haen. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991
Papers Presented at Conferences
– Keynote: “The Indo Dutch Fate at the 70th Anniversary of the Ending of WWII: Footnote or Legacy?”, The Indo Project, UC Irvine, 2015
– “In the Dutch Mountains”, Berkeley Language Center Colloquium, UC Berkeley, 2014
– Keynote: Bronnentaal in Praktijk, University of Amsterdam, 2013
– “De uitdagingen van Nederlands als bronnentaal,” IVN Colloquium, Antwerp, 2012
– “No Longer Lost in Translation: Developing a Dutch for Reading Knowledge Method and Textbook for the 21st Century,” AANS Conference, UNC-Chapel Hill, 2008
– “Reading Max Havelaar Anno 2005: Does Multatuli Have Anything to Say to Dutch Liberals in a Time of Political Upheaval and Extremism?” presented at the Netherlandic session at the MLA, Washington DC, 2005
– “Between Memory and Myth: Thematic Connections Between Novels of the Dutch East Indies and the American South” presented at the Berkeley Dutch Studies Conference for Dutch Literature, Berkeley, 2005
– “Thomas Wolfe and Marcel Proust: The Importance of Smell in Look Homeward, Angel.” Thomas Wolfe Conference, Asheville, North Carolina, 2000
– “A Tale of Two Cities: An Analogy Between Thomas Wolfe’s Exile in the American City and European City.” Thomas Wolfe Conference, Asheville, North Carolina, 1995
– “Paris in My Own Backyard: Hamilton Basso.” Presented at the MLA Conference, San Diego, California, 1994
– “Home is Where the Heart is: Small Town Experiences in the Fiction of Thomas Wolfe and Hamilton Basso.” American Studies Conference, Roosevelt Study Center, Middelburg, Zeeland, The Netherlands, 1993
– “In Search of Hamilton Basso: Rediscovering Forgotten Authors.” American Studies Conference, Catholic University of Nijmegen, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, 1993
– “From Riches to Rags: A Literary Reading of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Tropes of Revolution: Writers’ Reactions to Real and Imagined Revolutions. Conference organized by the English Department, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1989
Translated Books (English to Dutch and Dutch to English)
- Dutch translation of Steven Rosenfeld’s Dance for Survival, an account of Ben Bril, a Jewish boxer who survived the death camps by boxing for and against the Nazis. Amsterdam: Cossee, 2015
- English translation of Theo van Engelen’s young adult book, Classroom at War about a group of teenagers and close friends who are caught in the politics of the German occupation in the Netherlands during WWII. Nijmegen: Radboud University, 2015
- English translation of Sander Francken’s screenplay Hard & Soul, which will be produced in 2018
- English translation of Jasper Houtman’s first biography of coffee entrepreneur Alfred Peet (due out in 2018)
Honors and Awards
IES Award for Dutch Language Instructio 2012
Foreign Language Travel Grant, UC Berkeley Institute of European Studies 2010
Taalunie Research Grant (Dutch for Reading Knowledge) 2009
UC Berkeley Professional Development Grant 2008
Foreign Language Teacher Grant, UC Berkeley Institute of European Studies 2008
William B. Wisdom Award for the best research proposal on Thomas Wolfe 1993
Fulbright Fellowship for archival research relating to Hamilton Basso 1991
Harting Scholarship for M.A. studies in Great Britain 1988