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Born Hungry: Henry and Me
When obscenity crops out in art, in literature more particularly, it usually functions as a technical device ... its purpose is to awaken, to usher in a sense of reality. In a sense, its use by the artist may be compared to the use of the miraculous by the Masters ... the real nature of the obscene lies in the lust to convert.
— HENRY MILLER, REMEMBER TO REMEMBER
HENRY MILLER AND I met in a way that was most Millerish: by letter. A few days after Easter 1974, this letter appeared in a stack at my door:
Easter—April 14, 1974
Dear Erica Jong,
I have just written your publishers congratulating them for having published your Fear of Flying....
I don't know when I've read a book by a woman which has made such an impact upon me. I started it against the grain, then found it impossible to put down until I had read about a hundred pages.
Though I enjoyed the gay, witty, thoroughly uninhibited way in which the book was written, I was also very much taken by its serious side. So much suffering! Jewish suffering. It reminded me of certain passages in Celine's works in which the saddest events call forth laughter. But men have so much to learn from your book, as well as women. It is a text book as well as a novel or autobiography.
I could not help but feel drawn to Adrian, hypocritical bastard though he was—because for all his foul play he did the most for Zelda of all her lovers. He put her face to face with reality and herself.
I hope you will give us more books!
Enclosed was another wildly effusive letter, which Henry, with characteristic openhandedness, had already sent to my publisher.
April 14, 1974
Holt, Rinehart & Winston
Allow me to congratulate you on publishing Erica Jong's most delightful book, Fear of Flying. I notice that you call it a novel, but is it? Isn't it more of an autobiographical piece of writing? At any rate, it is rare these days to come upon a book written by a woman which is so refreshing, so gay and sad at the same time, and so full of wisdom about the eternal man-woman problem. One can learn more on the subject from this "novel" than from the huge, dull tomes authored by analysts, psychologists, medical authorities and such like. The book strikes one as utterly true and sincere. In spite of the wit and humor which the author narrates, one realizes that she is in dead earnest and aware that she is making a major contribution.
Could you tell me, please, if you or any other publisher are contemplating publishing another book of hers? Also, who published the two volumes of poetry she has written: You are at liberty to quote any part of this letter, if it will serve your purpose.
What did I know about Henry Miller at the time these two missives, scrawled in black felt pen on yellow legal sheets, appeared on my doorstep? Not much. My image of Miller was probably almost as distorted as the banal image of the dirty- old-man writer that haunts Miller's name in the public prints. Though I'd read bits of Tropic of Cancer, Remember to Remember, The Henry Miller Reader, and Henry Miller on Writing, I did not have a clear picture of Henry Miller either as a writer or a person. I vaguely remembered seeing pictures in news magazines of an old Miller and his young Japanese wife. And I remembered reading about a notorious obscenity case involving Miller. But I had no idea that the awesome sea change that occurred in publishing in the sixties was to be traced almost directly to Miller.
I myself had experienced this metamorphosis of publishing in my most vulnerable years. I was a high school student at Music & Art in New York City when suddenly Lady Chatterley's Lover, Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and Lolita were published by "mainstream" New York houses and each caused a sensation. As a junior in high school, I ran out to buy Lady Chatterley's Lover in paperback, and read it with the excitement which comes only from the conjunction of eros and revolution (which are anyway the main themes of adolescence). It was not until my junior year in college that Tropic of Cancer finally appeared in the United States. I realize now that I did not know even a fraction of the Miller canon when he first wrote me and in this I was probably typical of most readers. The last thing I remembered about Miller was the feminist fracas Kate Millett had created in 1970 when she published Sexual Politics.
It was Millett's thesis—as everyone remembers—that Miller's entire apprehension of sex was misogynistic. In this she was not wrong, but her attack had the effect of proscribing once again a writer who had been largely unobtainable in his own country for almost four decades.
It is not without irony that Miller was first unread because of official puritanical censorship and later unread because of unofficial feminist censorship. And it is also not without irony that certain recent American feminists (forgetting the genesis of our movement with such free spirits as Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Victoria Wood- hull) seem to have joined the anti-sex league. Still, Sexual Politics set the terms of the debate about Miller all through the latter part of his life. Was he or was he not a "sexist pig"? Everyone today has to deal with that question in addressing Henry Miller—irrelevant as it is to the books he most wanted to be known by: The Colossus of Maroussi and The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder.
Miller was faintly disreputable—that much I knew. He was associated with Paris in the thirties, Big Sur in the fifties, banned books, young Oriental women, sex. But I also remembered that when I was searching for the freedom to write Fear of Flying, I picked up Tropic of Cancer and the sheer exuberance of the prose unlocked something in me. And I also remembered reading an essay of Miller's which had hit me right between the eyes. The modern writer uses obscenity as the ancient writer used the sacred, Miller alleged, in "Obscenity and the Law of Reflection." The modern writer, in using obscenity, is trying to rekindle the awe, the shock, the wonder that the ancients found at Delphi or Eleusis. Something about that perception struck me as absolutely right.
Interestingly enough, Tennessee Williams (as quoted by Gore Vidal in Two Sisters), said something quite similar about the uses of sex in literature. He used sex, Williams told Vidal, to "raise the temperature of the audience. You key them up. Then you can tell them anything."
I had not studied Miller in Modern American Literature class at Barnard. Or in the Ph.D. program at Columbia. He was not taught. Bookworm and passionate scribbler that I was, Miller had largely eluded me. In part, this was because his most famous books were banned, and the others were poorly distributed or out of print.
If I could have obtained Miller's books easily, I would have gobbled them up. Friends who are five or ten years older report the tonic effect on their literary lives of smuggled copies of Tropic of Cancer brought home from Paris.
Discovering literature at a time when publishing was undergoing a revolution led to abrupt changes in my freedom to read. I have a recollection of having had to track down Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure from a locked case in the rare-book room at Butler Library, but this recollection must go back to high school days because, by the time I was in graduate school, she was available in paperback almost everywhere.
In the sixties, after the freeing of Tropic of Cancer, younger American writers began to respond to this new freedom with books that could never have been written, let alone published, before. After John Updike's Couples in 1968 and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in 1969, American fiction dared to open the bedroom door. I think we conveniently tend to forget how recently all this occurred. And Miller was at the root of this change though he was never given official credit.
Fear of Flying was a dare to myself to write from the female point of view with as much verve (and nerve) as Roth and Updike had written from the male. Fear of Flying traveled a road less rocky than Tropic of Cancer's, but rocky nonetheless. The first printer refused to set type. TV networks would not take ads. And I remember my own astonishment at the sheer violence of some of the critical responses to the book. Cloistered in the Ph.D. program at Columbia, I had imagined that everyone knew Chaucer, Rabelais, Lawrence, and Joyce were full of sex—so why all the fuss? I had not bargained on book-chat sexophobia— of both the feminist and male chauvinist variety. It was as if I were advocating the barbecuing of infants!
Nor was the book calculated to win easy acceptance in the hotly politicized climate of 1973. Separatist feminists attacked it as "soft on men" (because my heroine was heterosexual—something considered counterrevolutionary by some politically correct feminists of that era), and certain literary male chauvinists pronounced the liberated female voice trash. Had John Updike not rescued the book in The New Yorker, it might not have stayed in print long enough for Henry Miller to read it. So Miller's first letter came as a planche de salut—a life raft—to a young author who had been hurled into a political maelstrom by the experience of publishing a book. I had been called a "mammoth pudenda" in The New Statesman by none other than Paul Theroux, so I had every reason to be grateful to Miller and Updike.
I remember sending my two books of poems (Fruits & Vegetables and Half-Lives) to Miller in a hurry, but agonizing over what I termed "a real letter." As I was mulling and brooding about how to respond to a living legend (and reading more of his books to make myself worthy) still another Miller letter arrived.
April 30, 1974
Dear Erica Jong—
I'm not very strong on poetry and so I didn't expect to care for yours. (I do like some poets!) But I was surprised—I like your poems very much indeed. You are like a firecracker going off continually and interesting even when sputtering. You are so bright, so intelligent, so perceptive. You must have had straight A's all through school, non?
It was good of you to send me these two books of poems, with your charming dédicaces. I just finished reading the first one. I liked especially "If a woman wants to be a poet." You mention several times Sylvia Plath. I ought to look up her work—unknown to me. I notice all the good writers you quote or recommend—excellent taste. The French poet "Ponge" was a surprise. I see you are going to write me a letter. I look forward to it eagerly.
Jong is Chinese, isn't it? At first I thought it was a variation of the Swiss "Jung."
Somehow somewhere I got the impression that Hermann Hesse was a writer who belonged to your youth—and not to be taken too seriously. I am probably wrong. But I hope (why, I don't know) that you regard him as first-rate writer. For me, in some ways, he is a master. I would love to be able to write a book like "Siddhartha" or "Narcissus and Goldmund."
Enough! I wait to hear from you.
This missive was written on Henry Miller's black-and-white printed stationery, which bore the address 444 Ocampo Drive, Pacific Palisades, California. At the very bottom of the page, in tiny type, was the Portuguese motto cuando merda tiver valor pobre nasce sem cu ("when shit becomes valuable, the poor will be born without assholes)." Enclosed was a tattered fortune out of a fortune cookie that said: "Your name will be famous in the future."
Imagine a young writer receiving this fortune one day and attacks the next. It was dizzying and disorienting.
Eventually, I summoned the courage to write back, making it appear that I had read more of his writing than I had:
May 4, 1974
Dear Henry Miller,
Thanks so much for your delightful and generous letters to me and my publisher. I was absolutely knocked out by them. I love your writing—love its wonderful energy and life and I've always felt a deep kinship with it. Also, some of your observations on writing, sexuality, obscenity and literature have taken me through very dark times and have given me courage. All your books attest to the fact that a writer needs great courage as well as great talent and they give courage to readers, too. I thank you for your letters to me and for all your splendid books.
At one time, Fear of Flying was to have an epigraph from you— about the impossibility of ever telling the truth about one's life, the impossibility of literal autobiography—but, ultimately, I didn't want to tip my hand that way. The book is spiritual—if not literal— autobiography. Events and characters are sometimes invented, sometimes not. Everyone takes it for literal memoir—and in a way I find that a compliment. The book is coming out in paperback in the U.S. in November—and it is just now being published in England where some of the reviews read as if they were written by Mrs. Grundy herself. The New Statesman says I am "a mammoth pudenda" and my book "crappy," "loathsome," "horrible and embarrassing." Fortunately your first two letters arrived with the British reviews and softened them considerably. All those little well-bred boys who think sex is "horrible and embarrassing!" Amazing to find the world still so full of them.
I mailed the two books of poems to you in a post box that frequently disappears from the corner, so I was really delighted that you received them and that you responded so generously. Some characters in this neighborhood are running an ingenious hustle in which they remove the mailbox from the sidewalk, take it to a nearby basement where they break it open and remove any checks. I never know when I'm going to find the corner bereft of mailbox (with those four tell- tale holes in the street where the bolts were). Somehow it seemed more exciting to mail the books in that mailbox!
I was delighted with your most recent letter and the enclosed fortune. Yes, my name is Chinese and so is my husband—who is not nearly as inscrutable as he was a few years ago when I used him as a model for Bennett Wing. The book has changed him much for the better. Life follows literature, doesn't it? Have you often found that people you've written about are much improved by the experience—humanized, so to speak? I'd really be curious to know!
I haven't read Hermann Hesse since I was 15 and mooning over Siddhartha. I must read him again, now that I know a little more about writing and people. He will probably seem like a totally different writer.
I wonder whether you would like Sylvia Plath's poetry. She is a splendid poet (much less good as a novelist), but her work is so life-denying and obsessed with suicide that I think you would be put off. She learned a great deal from Theodore Roethke and has the same kinds of very condensed, laconic and intense images, but all her brilliance is in the service of her death obsession—she did finally take her own life at the age of 31. A terrible waste, really. I know many of the details of her life and know that she was always a rather disturbed woman—but I persist in believing that her suicide was hastened by the fact that she had to live in England with all those goddamned Englishmen! Her husband, Ted Hughes, is a hulking Yorkshireman who always seemed like a warlock to me, and the literary gents in London never seemed to have much use for women themselves. They mostly like each other, and thrive on literary infighting. Healthy sexuality is so unknown to them that when they come upon it, they shriek with horror. My character Adrian was something of a secret pervert himself. His trip was not sex, but mind- manipulation. Nevertheless, it was true that the intensity of that experience brought Isadora to her senses....
I wish I could convey to you how much joy and courage I have gotten from your writing in the past. Just last week I was reading and rereading your remarks on obscenity and literature in Remember to Remember. They seem brilliant to me. I think it's true that the modern artist uses "obscenity" as the ancient artist used the miraculous—to jolt the reader and create an epiphany. I could go on and on about your work and the things it's done for me at different times in my life, but I'll stop in the interest of getting this letter to California (via my floating mailbox).
Love and thanks
Henry responded almost instantaneously.
Excerpted from The Devil at Large by Erica Jong. Copyright © 1993 Erica Jong. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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