Henry Miller’s Childhood Reading

Henry Miller

Henry Miller is a good example of how childhood reading has a powerful effect on the kind, and style, of work writers produce as adults. (Image: public domain.)

I enjoy comparing my own adventures among books with those of famous authors. All writers, whether they are well known, obscure, or as yet unpublished seem to have a lot in common. However, there are exceptions. Henry Miller, author of oft-banned books such as Tropic of Cancer, seems to be one of them.

In The Books in My Life, Miller describes his vivid memories of books read during his childhood. He has astonishingly clear recollections of covers, illustrations, historical eras, famous people, even where he first encountered certain words. Looking carefully at that list of recollections, I decided he must have been a heavy reader of non-fiction. It struck me how much Miller’s rememberings differ from my own memories of youthful encounters with books.

Until my late teens, I was exclusively a fiction reader. For me, the story and its physical setting were everything. Characters I can seldom name, covers and interior illustrations are mostly long forgotten (Arthur Ransome’s books would be among the rare exceptions), and until I reached adulthood, no historical personage was of any interest to me. As for words: I have not the faintest idea where and when I first encountered any of them! I hope I am not wrong in assuming that my situation is typical while Miller’s is a remarkable exception.

The interesting thing about all this is the way said childhood reading experiences, both Miller’s and my own, are reflected in the work we have produced as adult artists. Miller’s “novels” are fragmented, made up of narrative segments, letters, quotes (often extensive) from philosophical or other works (e.g. Spengler), portraits of friends, excerpts from other books in progress, and what-have-you. Much like the material one might find in a biography or work of history. His books are so diverse in their content they are more like a compendium than a work of fiction. In contrast, my own work stands squarely on coherent stories dominated by usually romantic settings. As with Miller, what I write is similar to what I read when still a youngster.

It is also worth noting that, as an adult, Miller was a prolific painter of watercolours. These were usually impressionist portraits of friends or neighbours and were for years his primary source of income. The paintings mirror the character portraits in his books. In a sense, they are an extension of them. What we see in Miller’s and my own work is typical of the way artists of every kind function. No work of art truly stands alone. The human mind, the fount of creativity, is at the deeper level an integrated whole.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

5 thoughts on “Henry Miller’s Childhood Reading”

  1. This is an interesting post: I think my own work has been influenced on a very profound level by what I read as a child. I gravitated even then toward books that were set in the past – Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Box of Delights, The Secret Garden – and involved elements of the bizarre, magical or gothic. This has had a strong bearing upon my writing as an adult, and I agree that the influences we absorb as children have a very great effect in later years.

  2. Gosh, Mari, I haven’t thought about The Box of Delights for a while. Your reminder made a lovely start for my day. The Secret Garden is another of my own favourites. The vision of that hidden garden stayed with me for many years after I read the book. I’m wondering if you read E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet or The Story of the Amulet and such like. The books I remember best are Arthur Ransome’s sailing adventures. I can still recall the thrill of finding a new one on the library’s shelves. As I mentioned in the post, they are just about the only books whose covers I remember. One other suddenly comes to mind: George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind. Not surprisingly, a blend of fantasy and adventure defines most of my fiction. If Masefield and Burnett influenced your work, I’m sure it’s worth reading. You write well. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Thanks! I’ve never read a great deal of E. Nesbit for some reason – this really is something I should remedy. I loved Ransome though. I liked Enid Blyton too … fond memories!

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