Not a lot of writers ever attained a badass quotient as high as Henry Miller did in Paris in the 1930s. He was a Whitmanesque American novelist in the international center of high art, writing scandalous books about sex and having plenty of sex with Anaïs Nin. And unlike the works of the “hordes of shrieking poseurs” populating Montparnasse at the time (to quote Orwell from the essay linked below), his books are very good! They remain highly readable to this day, especially Tropic of Cancer. In 1976 Norman Mailer wrote a book about Henry Miller called Genius and Lust, in which he called Tropic of Cancer “one of the ten or twenty great novels of our century, a revolution in consciousness equal to The Sun Also Rises.”
George Orwell’s extended 1940 essay “Inside the Whale” uses Miller’s works as a prism to make some trenchant observations about the modernist movement as a whole. His remarks on Black Spring are worth quoting here:
When I first opened Tropic of Cancer and saw that it was full of unprintable words, my immediate reaction was a refusal to be impressed. Most people’s would be the same, I believe. Nevertheless, after a lapse of time the atmosphere of the book, besides innumerable details, seemed to linger in my memory in a peculiar way. A year later Miller’s second book, Black Spring, was published. By this time Tropic of Cancer was much more vividly present in my mind than it had been when I first read it. My first feeling about Black Spring was that it showed a falling-off, and it is a fact that it has not the same unity as the other book. Yet after another year there were many passages in Black Spring that had also rooted themselves in my memory. Evidently these books are of the sort to leave a flavour behind them—books that “create a world of their own,” as the saying goes. The books that do this are not necessarily good books, they may be good bad books like Raffles or the Sherlock Holmes stories, or perverse and morbid books like Wuthering Heights or The House with the Green Shutters. But now and again there appears a novel which opens up a new world not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar. The truly remarkable thing about Ulysses, for instance, is the commonplaceness of its material. Of course there is much more in Ulysses than this, because Joyce is a kind of poet and also an elephantine pedant, but his real achievement has been to get the familiar on to paper. He dared — for it is a matter of daring just as much as of technique — to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind, and in doing so he discovered an America which was under everybody’s nose. Here is a whole world of stuff which you supposed to be of its nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives. When you read certain passages in Ulysses you feel that Joyce’s mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there some world outside time and space in which you and he are together. And though he does not resemble Joyce in other ways, there is a touch of this quality in Henry Miller. Not everywhere, because his work is very uneven, and sometimes, especially in Black Spring, tends to slide away into more verbiage or into the squashy universe of the surrealists. But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. “He knows all about me,” you feel; “he wrote this specially for me.” It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike. For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylized, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with the recognizable experiences of human beings.
Here’s Miller reading from “The Tailor Shop” from Black Spring: