Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller
by Norman Mailer
Grove Press, 576 pp., $12.50
In that overbearing but fertile treatise, The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom tells us that “strong poets” get that way by implicitly diminishing the great predecessors who most threaten to intimidate them into silence. To be a powerful writer one must first be a misreader, exaggerating or inventing a weakness in the forebear that calls for the remedy of one’s own gestating work. But despite all his swerving, an insecure writer may remain unconvinced of his right to exist. As an instance, Bloom cites Mailer: “any reader of Advertisements for Myself may enjoy the frantic dances of Norman Mailer as he strives to evade his own anxiety that it is, after all, Hemingway all the way.”
True enough for the Mailer of the 1950s. Now, however, Mailer seems far less preoccupied with Hemingway than with another figure, Henry Miller, who became important to him well after his formative period was over. And Mailer treats Miller with an empathy and a magnanimity that seem quite opposite to the Bloomian author’s struggle to get out from under. Given Bloom’s suspicion of efforts to deny influence, I imagine he would be reluctant to close the case of Mailer and Hemingway on the basis of this distracting evidence. The canny thing to say would be that Mailer’s homage to Miller is an indirect way of exorcizing Hemingway, the undead; one writer, a harmless decoy, is overpraised with all the generosity that must still be withheld from the other.
A more straightforward and plausible interpretation would be that Hemingway, after his suicide in 1961 and the subsequent revelations about his long nervous debility, is no longer the towering authority of masculine style for Mailer or for anyone else. Our fictive prose in general has turned away from the clipped and bittersweet Hemingway manner and has become loose, expansive, fantastic—in short, Milleresque; and Mailer in particular has positively courted Miller’s stylistic guidance since the early Sixties. Now in Genius and Lust he goes out of his way to mark the change in allegiance:
The eye of every dream Hemingway ever had must have looked down the long vista of his future suicide—so he had a legitimate fear of chaos. He never wrote about the river—he contented himself, better, he created a quintessentially American aesthetic by writing about the camp he set up each night by the side of the river—that was the night we made camp at the foot of the cliffs just after the place where the rapids were bad.
Miller is the other half of literature. He is without fear of his end, a literary athlete at ease in earth, air or water. I am the river, he is always ready to say, I am the rapids and the placids, I’m the froth and the scum and twigs—what a roar as I go over the falls. Who gives a fart. Let others camp where they may. I am the river and there is …