Sunday, April 14, 2013

Henry Miller hated, hated, hated St. Louis: 'a foul, stinking corpse'

For whatever reason, I have been slow to read most of the American counter-cultural classics. I only got started on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934) this winter when my friend Lola van Ella scored it for interactive burlesque, giving me homework to do.

I've not been able to finish that book (there's more in Tropic of Cancer about being famished in Paris than anything sexy), but it did make me pull down from my shelf a later and lesser-known work by Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). I've had a battered Panther Books paperback in my collection for many years without even flirting with reading it.

Yesterday I had four young girls in my care on roller skates at a roller rink, which freed me to sit up in what might generously be called the lobby and do some pleasure reading. And I came across some fascinating stuff in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. The book is basically a venomous anti-American travelogue, Steinbeck's Travels with Charley except where the sidekick is not a dog but a fellow jaded expatriate who fled Paris as Hitler's war was hitting there. Miller and his road buddy miss Paris and France so hard they'd almost rather be back there ducking air raids than driving from state to state on American highways that make Miller see blood red.

He hates just about everything and every place about his native country, but saves special scathing scorn for my city, St. Louis, Missouri, which he sees for the first time in the early 1940s. Henry Miller writes of "the tomb of St. Louis which is called a city, but which is a foul, stinking corpse rising up from the plains like an advertisement of Albrecht Durer's 'Melancholia'."

The St. Louis of my experience (1985 to present, with interruptions) is very beloved by architects and architectural aficionados (or, as I like to call them when trying to be a rascal, the building huggers). So it really shocked me that Henry Miller found our city to be an architectural monstrosity:

".. this great American city creates the impression that architecture itself has gone mad. The true morbidity of the American soul finds its outlet here. Its hideousness is not only appalling but suffocating. The houses seem to have been decorated with rust, blood, tears, sweat, bile, rheum, and elephant dung."

This makes me want to get out my copy of Bill Streeter's St. Louis documentary Brick by Chance and Fortune to see if he uncovered this quote. If not, maybe it can be included in a second edition, because that sure sounds like an evil-eyed description of our beloved brick houses.

I'll also have to thank Lola for scoring this sourpuss' classic novel for interactive burlesque: for summoning Henry Miller's spirit back to a place he couldn't leave fast enough: "One can imagine the life which goes on there - something a la Theodore Dreiser at his worst. Nothing can terrify me more than the thought of being doomed to spend the rest of my days in such a place."

Love you back, Henry Miller!


There is hope, if Lola conjured Henry Miller's spirit to her interactive burlesque score of Tropic of Cancer, that the author would have taken a more charitable view of St. Louis in 2013, roughly seventy years after his first and presumably only visit to our river city. For in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare Miller begrudgingly praises another Mississippi River city, New Orleans. N'arlins evokes his beloved Paris, of course, but there is more to it: "here at last on this bleak continent," Miller writes of New Orleans, "the sensual pleasures assume the importance which they deserve." Certainly, the same can be said of St. Louis any time Lola is running the show!


The image is Albrecht Durer's 'Melancholia'.

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