The Reading Room

Henry Miller on Jack Kerouac

What Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell thought about Jack Kerouac… hmIn today’s society we readily bestow praise upon the most undeserving of recipients, regardless of the subject matter with book and author credits being a worthy example. How often has one endured reading the gushing plaudits heaped upon an author by a fellow member of the cultural inner circle? Most of us, one would hope are not so easily fooled. What we, the book lovers are more keen to know is what one author really thinks of another’s work. We want the sense of elitism, the desperate critical claw of a piece surpassing their own. We want the smell of blood!

In 1958 Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell were sharing a long and affectionate correspondence which began and endured through  a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work. At times, their letters read overly courteous but neither would submit when an irksome point was presented to them. So it is to Miller, Durrell and their peers from that period that we must glean any modicum of ‘author upon author’ criticism and in this fine volume of letters we see Jack Kerouac come under their scrutiny. Kerouac released The Dharma Bums in 1958, his third book which followed on from ‘The Subterraneans’ in the same year and the classic ‘On the Road’ in 1957 and it is this volume which is the subject of their correspondence about him.

The renegade Miller posted a copy of the book to Durrell, Miller was clearly a fan but Durrell less so, and vents his opinion in the ensuing correspondences:  From Lawrence Durrell; “Dear Henry…About Kerouac, whose new book has arrived, what am I to say? I can’t go along with you. I found it really corny and deeply embarrassing…Sorry if you think I’m unjust but it seems to be about Errol Flynn level”. Durrell goes on: “I’m trying to isolate a tone of voice which irritates me. God knows, Kerouac may yet turn into a writer. He’s young and hard-working” He goes on to quote lines from the book before finishing with a note of despair: “But what a devastating picture of what young intellectuals are saying and doing over there (America). They need a week at a French lychee to be taught to think and construct”

But Miller strikes back with a subtle inference to Durrell’s own writing style and doesn’t appreciate this lambasting of a book he found entertaining, he replies; “Kerouac, you see, is just up my street, as far as American writing goes. He swings. Doesn’t worry. Good, bad, indifferent-cancer-schmanser. What difference, so long as you’re healthy? Something comes through writing this way. Something that never happens with the usual “good” writers, I mean. We can all learn from this effortless effort”

Miller was always the more likely of the two to take an apologists view of Kerouac and buy into the beat generation he came to represent. He goes on: “We need to learn to enjoy what we do while doing it, chances are the other fellow will too. I talk enjoyment. Forgive me. That’s all I have learned from the books I have pored over” If that doesn’t hit the mark he ends with a question for Durrell: “Do you laugh sometimes while writing? It makes fun, as Reichel would say”

Durrell knows he has touched a nerve and in response which is typical of him lavishes praise and apology upon Miller: “And now you’ve reached the stage of ‘effortless stage play-automatism’ you can pull-off these giant trapeze acts; whereas us poor devils still have to build patient ladders up the side of the cliff. But I console myself with the tremendous amount of practice you’ve had, inner and outer to achieve this fine rare harmony and balance of forces, and hope one day to start playing” He goes on to suggest: “I may have been unfair to Kerouac; it wasn’t the loose free and easy thing I wanted to criticise. I was against the Burt Lancaster tone of voice! So rugged without, so tough and crude; yet so tender within, the wondering babe in the wood!” From this extract it would be easy to ascertain master from pupil which, for a number of years in the beginning it was but the tables turn upon occasion with Miller, the old master seeking guidance, advice and encouragement from Durrell who was twenty years his junior.

Quite what Kerouac himself would have made of Durrell’s comments is another matter, if he knew then he would surely have been heartened by Miller’s riposte just as he was the letter Miller wrote to the publisher, Viking Press about how enthralled he had been by the book. From then on Miller and Kerouac would be in frequent communication.

Today, the age of letter writing has all but vanished, it is difficult to imagine a published volume of emails between one modern-day author and another having the same longevity of interest. This friendship would last for forty-five years and ‘A Private Correspondence’ published in 1962 is a wonderful testament to their relationship.

Extracts from ‘Lawrence Durrell & Henry Miller A Private Correspondence’ edited by George Wickes, published by Faber and Faber.

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