Another Author Who Hated Brooklyn? Henry Miller

05/10/2013 2:06 PM |


This week kicked off with the sort of unfortunate news that the lit scene’s favorite Brooklyn transplant, Martin Amis, may or may not completely hate it here. Sort of a bummer, but Brooklyn is a big place, and a lone hater is pretty easy to brush off. But two? Well, this is maybe getting to be a problem.


Just in time for the Big Sur Brooklyn Bridge Festival, the New Yorker has a thoughtful meditation on the awkward truth about the lit scene’s favorite Brooklyn native, Henry Miller, which is that he seemed to actually hate it here. A lot.

How do we know? Well, besides the fact that he actively made an effort to live in places as far away as possible—geographically and aesthetically—from his childhood neighborhood (“That squalid section of Brooklyn known as Williamsburg”), he talked a lot of shit. “I try to relate those squalid streets and shabby houses to the vast expanse of sea and mountains of this region,” Miller wrote after settling happily in Big Sur, and later recalled Brooklyn as “a place where I knew nothing but starvation, humiliation, despair, frustration, every god damn thing—nothing but misery. Every bloody street I looked down I see nothing but misery, nothing but monsters… Later, when I began to explore it, why, it’s a different city, a little more horrible, gets worse all the time.”

Well, uh, no misinterpreting that. Maybe he’d like it now? A lot has changed in the past century, you know. But probably, he’d still hate it. He even had it in for specific streets. Let’s take it to a section from Tropic of Capricorn: “I saw a street called Myrtle Avenue, which runs from Borough Hall to Fresh Pond Road, and down this street no saint ever walked (else it would have crumbled), down this street no miracle ever passed, nor any poet, nor any species of human genius, nor did any flower ever grow there, nor did the sun strike it squarely, nor did the rain ever wash it… Dear reader, you must see Myrtle Avenue before you die, if only to realize how far into the future Dante saw.”

Huh. Myrtle? Is it really that bad? Maybe he just never got a chance to go to Big Boy Deli, is all.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

One Comment

  • Ah! How unfortunate (yet conversationally wonderful!). everyone is referencing these latter day videos of Miller capitulating his abhorrence for the borough. This is a problem of accessibility and laziness! To watch an out of context video of miller on YouTube (be it a hilarious and illuminated video non the less) is a simple path. One needs only read the opening paragraph, neigh the opening sentence of Black Spring to see Millers respect for the streets that formed him! Letters to Emil as well backs up beautiful, sprawling portraits of the old neighborhood.

    …perhaps I should counter with that!

    The L magazine article quotes Henry’s colloquialisms on Myrtle avenue and then references Big Boy Deli at the end, which is in fact the deli on the bottom floor of the building I live in (on myrtle ave). Small world.

    Robert Kolodny