Quite often the time and place we encounter a great book is equally as important as the book itself. I encountered Henry Miller’s oeuvre when I was a bearded, long-haired leprechaun wearing a Levi jacket and jeans. My rucksack was fat with fantastic literature as I consumed ideas with mad passion. The books of my life are as varied as I wished to make them, and I loved them all: Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, The Bhagavad Gita, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Areopagitica by John Milton, Beam Ends by Errol Flynn, The King James Bible, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, to name a few. My bohemian groove quite naturally included rubbing elbows with writers like Allan Ginsberg, Dave Etter and Lucien Stryk, all while reading Henry Miller.
Miller is one of several writers mentioned above who is unfairly vilified in our increasingly dysfunctional, semi-literate culture. If the name Henry Miller only elicits for you the word “sex” then you haven’t truly read and comprehended Henry Miller. Conversely, if the word “poetry” only associates for you the word “flower” then you have never comprehended the vast, wonderful world of great British and American poetry. I mourn for you. Meanwhile, let us consider The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller.
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is not Miller’s best book, but I find it irresistible all the same. After leaving Paris for Greece in 1939, Miller returned to the United States and shortly commenced on the cross-country journey that resulted in this book. Such cross-country musings are now quite popular, but the difference is that Miller refused to paint the American landscape as a flower garden. This is a brutal, acerbic condemnation of the American scene, just as relevant today as it was in 1945. Miller makes his point early on: “Topographically the country is magnificent – and terrifying. Why terrifying? Because nowhere else in the world is the divorce between man and nature so complete. Nowhere have I encountered such a dull, monotonous fabric of life as here in America.” Miller’s observations range from astute to humorous to angry. He holds nothing back.
Miller’s assessment isn’t simply discontentment with the blatant mechanization and urbanization of the landscape, but also includes a discontentment with our American character. Miller writes: “I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans – the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out.” Miller views us as a nation of people who have “degraded the life which we sought to establish on this continent. The most productive nation in the world, yet unable to properly feed, clothe and shelter over a third of its population.”
As Miller travels the county, he offers a diverse portrait of the people and places, often resulting in a treatise turned rant about friendship, loyalty, compassion, love, sex, wealth, and any other topic that strikes his fancy. Miller attempts a friendship with an ex-convict, only recently released from prison; he travels to a beautiful southern plantation, a dismal park in Jacksonville, Florida, and all the way to Arizona and California. His contempt for Boston and New York fairly jumps off the page.
Miller is at his best when the writing is full-force spontaneous emotion, and the ideas and themes fly from his fingertips. His compassion for humanity, his devotion to the creative arts, and his fondness for Paris and the bohemian scene that he had only recently left, are all vividly expressed. There is also a feeling here that Miller is nostalgic for the bohemian life he experienced in Paris because it was irrevocably destroyed by Nazi Germany. So too did Hemingway look back with fondness at a Paris that could never be recreated.
For Miller, the United States is an increasingly complex beast. He revels in praising, (and sometimes vilifying), the various people he meets on his journey, but through it all Miller is in love with the idea on mankind’s potential. He never shies away from the belief that we can make this county a better place. His visit to the Grand Canyon of Arizona elicits a fascinating character portrait of an old prospector, and the resulting chapter offers his usual astute contemplations. Why, for example, would anyone be interested in viewing an amateur painting of the Grand Canyon when nature’s majesty is but a few steps away? Why, also, would we bother with the newspaper’s Sunday comics? Upon seeing a discarded newspaper at the canyon’s rim, Miller intones: “What can possibly appear more futile, sterile and insignificant in the presence of such a vast and mysterious spectacle as the Grand Canyon than the Sunday comic sheet?”