New Review of Henry Miller: The Last Days

Here is a new, abridged version of a review by Resources for American Literary Study:

Henry Miller, the Last Days: A Memoir
By Barbara Kraft. San Antonio: Sky Blue P, 2016. 203 pp. $15.

Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller (1891-1980) both shared part of their private lives with Barbara Kraft, giving her the unimaginable opportunity of being alongside two of the more memorable writers of the twentieth century during their final years. Kraft became an important source of support and enjoyment for the ailing writers. Anaïs Nin: The Last Days, A Memoir (2011) is Kraft’s account of her time with Nin, and this current memoir details the events surrounding her friendship with Miller. Drawing from her diary recording that period, Kraft provides an intimate view into Miller’s ups and downs with his failing health. We are presented with a Miller very much alive and connected—albeit growing more disinterested—with the world around him, vivacious in his love for Brenda Venus, continuing his endless correspondence, and publishing short works. Miller’s home life, however, was increasingly troubled, and Kraft elucidates biographical details of Miller’s household that have been overlooked by his many biographers.

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Following the international fame Miller attained in the early 1960s due to his pornography trial and resulting American and British publication of his Tropic novels, he became a sought-after outsider. With this (mostly) unwanted attention, the aging writer tended to avoid many of his devoted fans. In reaction to this sometimes-aggressive public attention, Miller may have subconsciously tried to regain some privacy by keeping separate the various sections of his life. Kraft recalls that Miller had a revolving collection of sixteen different “chefs” visiting his house, of whom Kraft was one—these were people whom Miller had asked to cook him dinner a few times a month—yet, over the course of nearly three years, Kraft never met any of the others. Because of Miller’s tendency to pigeonhole his friends into various parts of his life, it is understandable that Kraft’s memoir is very much centered on Miller’s kitchen, a place where she spent many evenings conversing with Miller, sometimes bringing special visitors with whom Kraft thought Miller might find an affinity.

From a biographical perspective, Kraft’s Henry Miller, The Last Days is an important addition to the memoirs and reflections on Miller’s Pacific Palisades time.

By the beginning of 1980, the inevitable final decline in Miller’s health became apparent to Kraft. Death came slowly, and Kraft recalls the waiting for the moment when his life would end. During these last months, Miller was still mostly cognizant of his surroundings, but his body increasingly failed him. He refused to let Venus see him in such a condition and turned down an opportunity presented by Kraft to meet Eugene Ionesco, one of his favorite playwrights. As his body failed, Miller’s mind also drifted, sometimes back to his days in France, and he soon required Pickerill’s assistance with all of his daily functions. Kraft moves quickly through these months, as Miller’s ability to interact with guests decreased and she had to devote more attention to her own personal life.

The memoir ends with Miller’s death, and by ending there, it appears that Kraft had no personal involvement with Miller’s posthumous family affairs. Why it took Kraft twenty-three years to set down a detailed reflection on her friendship with Miller seems irrelevant; for those interested in Miller, Kraft recollects the events as if they had just recently unfolded, writing in the first person. Ultimately, the expanded details of the book-length memoir provide a final glimpse of Miller from a perspective that no other biographer will be able to portray.

WAYNE E. ARNOLD, The University of Kitakyushu, Japan, for Resources for American Literary Study

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