Thursday, January 18, 2007

Reading. Miller.

(Here we are again).

It became clear to me, many years ago, that as an accidental American I was drawn to American writers examining their own identity and their own country in order that I might understand my own identity more clearly. In order to understand America, one has to see it, and the best way is to do it from the road. In 1960 John Steinbeck chronicled his journey across the United States in Travels with Charley; some twenty years earlier Henry Miller did the same with The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. The idea of exploring his own home country came to him while he was living in Paris; I suppose that when you are home you dream of being abroad, and when you have at last made it to your dream destination you think of your own bed, the high water-pressure in your shower, the thick, soft white toilet paper that makes all other toilet paper feel like sandpaper. But I digress.

I felt the need to effect a reconciliation with my native land, wrote Miller, I was returning not with the intention of remaining in the bosom of the family but of wandering forth again, perhaps never to return. I wanted to have a last look at my country and leave it with a good taste in my mouth. I didn't want to run away from it...I wanted to embrace it...and set out for the unknown with a blessing on my lips. (Of course, some years later, he would return to the Big Sur he had discovered on that earlier odyssey, and would live there for several years, chronicled in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch).

His return to America begins disappointingly with the arrival at Boston, the American coast "bleak and uninviting." The architecture of the American house had something cold, austere, something barren and chill...[but] it was home, for all the ugly, evil, sinister connotations which the word contains for a restless soul. New York looms like a rat trap filled with bad memories and old friends that were part of the bad memories. Miller has arrived as he had left, without money, and his father is dying. But the idea of a trip across the country still holds steady in his mind, and along with the artist Abe Rattner, sets off on a journey in an automobile which he only has a vague idea of how to drive.

With a little money (promptly spent) and a book contract signed, the trip begins with Miller (having only been through the Holland Tunnel once before - in a taxi) unable to get out of Newark. The wheel is surrendered over to his traveling companion, they are out of the city and in the open country, and the real journey has its auspicious beginning in the town of New Hope. And all of America awaits.

Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New Directions, 1970. pp 9- 11.

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