THE BLOG
06/10/2014 11:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Henry Miller's Women, Part One: Foreplay

As is the case with many men, any discussion of Henry Miller's relationship with women, both in his life and in his work, must begin with his mother. Henry's relationship with Louise Miller shaped his character and his sensibility as a writer, predisposing his relationships with the women who became his lovers and wives, underpinning his literary attitudes, and influencing his treatment of women and sex in his fiction.

Miller's parents, on both sides, were second-generation German immigrants whose forbears had come to America before the outbreak of the Civil War. Louise came from damaged stock. Her mother was institutionalized when Louise was a girl of 12 or 13. Her older sister Emilia was mentally incompetent, and in later life was also "put away," an episode that Miller poignantly recounts in his essay "The Tailor Shop." As a young girl, Louise had become responsible for maintaining order in her household while her father Valentin Nieting supported the family as a tailor. Her humorless, autocratic, tyrannical management of Henry's home can be traced, in part, to her childhood struggle to manage a chaotic domestic scene poisoned by mental illness.

Louise and her husband Heinrich, also a tailor, were conventional middle class Americans, aspiring in the turbulent world of the Gilded Age to "keep up" by providing a home with material comforts and other signs of respectability. Louise was determined to pass these aspirations along to Henry, but her erratic behavior, her henpecking of his soft-hearted father, her unpredictable outbursts of violent rage, made those aspirations suspect. When Henry's sister Lauretta was born and quickly showed signs of being mentally ill (she never developed mentally beyond the age of nine), Louise became abusive trying to force her to be "normal." His horror at his mother's treatment of Lauretta -- rapping her knuckles with a wooden ruler when she failed to perform even the simplest mathematical sums, slapping her face when she mistook salt for sugar -- revolted him against her and made him question the conventional, bourgeois values she espoused.

In a long essay on the French poet Arthur Rimbaud that he wrote during the 1940s, Miller remarked the similarity between Rimbaud's cold, unaffectionate mother and his own:

Like Madame Rimbaud, my mother was the Northern type, cold, critical, proud, unforgiving, puritanical... My natural temperament was that of a kind, joyous, open-hearted individual -- as a youngster, I was often referred to as 'an angel.' But the demon of revolt had taken possession of me at a very early age. It was my mother who implanted it in me. It was against her, against all that she represented, that I directed my uncontrolled energy.

Much later in his life, his fame as a writer established, Miller returned to this theme in a short essay published in the collection Sextet.

When I finally found the courage to write what I'd been storing up for years, it came pouring out into one long relentless tirade. Beginning with the earliest memories of my mother, I had saved up enough hatred, enough anger, to fill a hundred books.

Opposed to Miller's demonic image of his mother was an idealized image of woman that Miller had formed as an adolescent around a girl who lived some distance away from him, in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Her name was Cora Seward. Though they rarely met and never dated, Miller at age 16 developed an obsessive fascination for her that pulled him out of his house on Decatur Street every evening after dinner. He would make the hour-long walk to Cora's house on Davoe Street, then stand outside gazing through the windows hoping to catch sight of her. He followed this routine for years, never working up the courage to mount the front porch and ring the doorbell.

Late in his life, Miller wrote about his unrealized love for Cora in Book of Friends. "It was Love I felt for Cora, love with a capital L that reached the skies." In another essay published in Sextet when Miller was 85, he reports a dream that placed him in Devachan, the temporary resting place where souls reside until they return to Earth in a reincarnated form. Miller encounters his dread mother there, but finds her transformed into the loving, affectionate woman he wanted her to be. He asks Louise if she has seen Cora, and is told that Cora has already returned to Earth. In reality, when Miller was 22 and working in his father's tailor shop, Cora had married a scientist.

Miller graduated from high school in 1909, enrolled briefly in the City College of New York, then dropped out and took a clerking job at a cement company. He began an affair with Pauline Chouteau, a 37-year-old divorcee with a son named Georgie about Henry's age. They first met at the home of Pauline's friend Louise, who was paying Miller 35 cents to give piano lessons to her daughter. Pauline would stay through the lessons, and Miller would escort her to her home on Decatur Street, a few blocks from his parents' house. There they would make love. Miller moved in with her briefly, but quickly found their relationship troubling. Pauline was old enough to be his mother, and his rivalry with Georgie, who suffered from tuberculosis, for her attention and affection, tormented him with guilt. Then Pauline became pregnant, but miscarried in her seventh month. To escape his relationship with her without actually breaking it off, Miller decided to move to California to take up the life of a cowboy. Able to find work there only as a fruit picker, he returned after nine months and began serving an apprenticeship in his father's tailor shop. He also resumed his relationship with Pauline. In the winter of 1914, in the kitchen of his parents' house, Miller told his mother that he intended to marry Pauline. Louise brandished a kitchen knife at Miller, vowing to use it on him if he married Pauline. Miller was unnerved by this apparent castration threat with its incestuous undertone. No marriage plans ensued.

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Next: Henry Miller's Women, Part Two: Orgasm