PRINT October 1993


The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller

“I SOMETIMES ASK MYSELF how it happens that I attract nothing but crackbrained individuals, neurasthenics, neurotics, psychopaths—and Jews especlally,” wrote Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer. This was, of course, in the 1930s. Ahead of his time though Miller may have been in many ways, it is too much of a strain on credibility to suppose that he had anything like The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller in mind. In fact it is too much of a strain on credibility to suppose that anyone other than Erica Jong could ever have had anything like this book in mind, for the simple reason that no one else could possibly devote as much time, space, and worshipful attention to the oeuvre and ideology of Erica Jong as Erica Jong does in The Devil at Large.

This work, as the dust-jacket blurb that appears under the de rigueur photograph of Jong grinning like a lunatic notes, is the author’s “first full-length work of nonfiction.” It purports, as the author explains in her introduction, to be “an unconventional book—part memoir, part critical study, part biography, part exploration of sexual politics in our time.” It is, as noted above, like most of Jong’s full-length works of fiction, insofar as such merits as it does possess are ultimately squashed flat as a pancake by the dead weight of the author’s self-enchantment.

Which is to say, to give The Devil at Large its due, that it is not completely without merit, in its own weird way. The several chapters of biography are workmanlike, a handy summary to have around the house in case a sudden emergency requiring a knowledge of the basics of Henry Miller’s life should happen to arise at a time that precluded an actual reading of Miller, Anaïs Nin, or any of their more detailed biographies. Jong has been ringing the same bearded old changes on her own special brand of not particularly evolved libertarian feminism since she first spurted into public view with the publication of Fear of Flying, in 1973; still, a fundamentally prosex political viewpoint (such as that expressed in “Must We Burn Henry Miller? Miller and the Feminist Critique” and “Sexomania/Sexophobia, or SexLibris,” which comprise chapters 7 and 8 of The Devil at Large) is always welcome.

However. The life and work of Henry Miller would present a number of problems for any critic engaged in a book-length analysis. The Colossus of Maroussi, Miller’s 1941 book on Greece, is a lovely, belletristic achievement, and the far-better-known “dirty” books—Tropic of Cancer, 1934, Tropic of Capricorn, 1939, The Rosy Crucifixion, 1949–53—have some wonderful moments. But the reason Henry Miller is not the canonical superhero Jong would like him to be is none of the reasons of cultural repression that she somewhat paranoiacally suggests. It is because he is, when all is said and done, a vigorous, talented writer whose occasional opacity and usual lack of complexity make him a figure of only moderate historical interest. And also because, like the far more profoundly misogynist J. D. Salinger, he is a writer whose primary audience is either psychologically or literally adolescent, with which there is nothing wrong, but still.

Unfortunately, Jong does not seem to have come to this project equipped with any devices more enlivening than those derived from overweening self-regard. I am not talking about The Devil at Large’s explicit excursions into the territory of self-interest, such as Jong’s decision to kick off her disquisition by reproducing, in their entirety, two letters Miller wrote (one to Jong, one to her publisher) that tell you nothing about their writer other than that he was moved to fulsome praise by Fear of Flying. I am not talking about Jong’s tendency to give over a large part of every chapter to affectionate reminiscences of her own career. I am talking about the intellectual price of overconfidence.

For example, Jong is a firm adherent of the all-too-common school that believes to repeat an argument is to advance it. Thus her contention that the patriarchal attitudes toward women and sex characteristic of Miller are not the product of misogyny but of “the male terror and envy of female power” is repeated several times with an increasing certitude that begs the question, What fucking power? Furthermore, although she premises her argument concerning the necessity of reading Miller in large part on a practically millennial mediaphobia (“We need his vision more than ever. Our freedoms are being taken away while we look at a flickering light show. More than ever we need to be enlightened. Our very survival depends on it”), she never makes more than a take-my-word-for-it case that these apocalyptic conditions exist. Not to mention Jong’s central supposition—that Miller is the victim of some nonspecific, possibly unintentional suppression on the part of the same people who have not been keeping Jong’s own works on the bestseller lists recently—which is little more than a flimsy justification for this book. I mean, Miller’s works are not banned now; they are readily available in accessibly priced paperbacks that trumpet effusive commendations from Norman Mailer on their covers.

Finally, even a minor-league star like Miller deserves better. Certainly his themes—spiritual and sexual freedom, the philosophy and consequences of life lived past the point of no return—are, as Jong indicates, albeit somewhat overstating the case, as vital today as they ever were. In fact, when they’re explored by writers less limited than Miller and Jong, they’re among my personal favorites.


Erica Jong, The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (New York: Turtle Bay Books/Random House), 337 pages.