A HIGHLY IMPORTANT HENRY MILLER LETTER
STAGGERLINGLY FULL OF MAJOR BIBLIO AND BIOGRAPHICAL FACTS WITH BITING AND REVEALING COMMENTARY FROM HIS TRAVELS IN FRANCE IN 1928 WITH HIS WIFE, JUNE.
THIS PERIOD WAS THE BASIS FOR HIS NOVEL
TROPIC OF CANCER
“IN MARSEILLE… THE WHORES AND PIMPS JUST CROWDED AROUND US LIKE BUZZARDS… TAKING THEM ALL IN ALL, THE FRENCH ARE A DIRTY, LOW-CLASS, MEAN, GREEDY BUNCH.”
“I WOULD ADVISE YOU ONCE AGAIN TO READ THOSE TWO BOOKS OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY — ‘THE SUN ALSO RISES’ AND ‘MEN WITHOUT WOMEN.’ HE HAD IT DOWN PAT…
“YOU COULD BUY ANY FRENCH GIRL IN MARSEILLE FOR A COUPLE OF THOUSAND FRANCS, THAT IT WAS A GREAT PORT FOR WHITE SLAVES, GIRLS BEING SHIPPED FROM MARSEILLES TO ALL PORTIONS OF THE GLOBE AND I BELIEVE IT AFTER WHAT I SAW.”
“LAST SUNDAY WE WENT TO A BIG BULL-FIGHT AT A PLACE CALLED NIMES, WHICH WAS ONCE A ROMAN CITY,… SOMETIMES THE BULL GETS SICK OF IT ALL AND LOOKS PATHETICALLY FOR THE EXIT. BUT THERE’S NO ESCAPE. HE’S THERE TO BE SLAUGHTERED, AND THESE PEOPLE CERTAINLY ENJOY THE SLAUGHTER. IT’S NOT REALLY A SPORT. IT’S TRULY A GRAND SPECTACLE, AND CERTAINLY NO ONE OUGHT TO MISS IT, BUT IT’S MORE LIKE A RELIGIOUS SACRIFICIAL RITE”.
MILLER, HENRY. (1891-1980). American novelist; author whose Bohemian lifestyle and autobiographical novels broke existing literary forms. Remarkable and highly important Autograph Letter Signed, “H.V.M.”, on imprinted Hotel-Restaurant de Grenoble et de Savoie stationery. Eight full pages, quarto. Aix-en-Provence, October 6, 192. Folds strengthened with old scotch tape [stable] and edges show some chipping. To “Dear Mr. Elkus”. Miller writes:
“I believe I sent you my last letter from Avignon. Though not so very far away from that town we seem to have covered a lot of territory. Are you following us on your map as we move from town to town? If you are, you can see that we went from Avignon to Arles, from there to Martigne, and then to Marseille. Today we arrived here in Aix, which is a most interesting place of about 35,000 inhabitants, founded 124 B.C. and once the old capital of old Provence, the country of the troubadours. Here there are fountains everywhere with different kinds of mineral water, hot or cold, right in the street. People come with big buckets to get a supply. It is a little out of the season and everything is tranquil, sedate, and sombre. It is very beautiful and very mild. The trees are green—deep green—olives and grapes are growing, and there is loads of sunshine. Here Emile Zola was born, and Paul Cezanne, the greatest painter of modern times. And yet we are only about 20 miles away from Marseille, which is so utterly different that you would hardly believe the two cities belonged to the same country, much less the same ‘department’, which, by the way, is named ‘Bouches du Rhome’—meaning the ‘mouths of the Rhone’, as the Rhone is very big, very powerful and empties into the Mediterranean through eight months. We stayed three days in Marseille and I got ill from the filthy water. I took a third of a glassful in my wine the first day, being very thirsty, and that little bit was enough to upset my stomach completely. However, we managed to take in most of the city. It is beyond all doubt one of the most notorious holes in the world. An international seaport, full of Americans, Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Spaniards, Senegalese, bums, thieves, fakers, pimps, whores, grand whores, and whatnot. The whole city smells bad—and it contains about a half million people. The sea itself is wonderful, and the boats, etc. A marvelous spot, surrounded by volcanic mountains that look white, blue, gray and purple in different shades of light. But the city itself is a cesspool. I don’t know how to describe it. You know how some of the worst streets on the East Side look. Well, imagine that and then increase the misery, the stench, the poverty, the degradation, the vice, the disease, etc. Last night we took a walk through the red light district—what is really ‘old Marseille’—and we were damned lucky that we had an interpreter with us or we might not have come out of the damned city alive. The whores and pimps just crowded around us like buzzards (despite the fact that June was along) and started pulling us one way and another, each one trying to drag us into their particular den. The street was full of dumber sailors, stevedores, floaters of all nationalities, and they were amused at our predicament. For the first time since being here in Europe I was thoroughly scared. Such a hole. A filthy narrow street, on each side, little cubby holes exposed to public view, in which you could see a bed and a dresser with a kerosene oil lamp on it. In front of the open door sat the mistress of the place, calling out to all comers to step inside. White, yellow, black, old, crippled, diseased—it made no difference. And when you try to pass them by they grab your hat or tug at you by the coat tail or make a circle around you until you go mad. I was never so god damned sore, disgusted and bewildered in my life. The fellow who escorted us was an interpreter for the courts and he managed to get us out safely but I could see he was quite upset himself. He told us that you could buy any French girl in Marseille for a couple of thousand francs, that it was a great port for white slaves, girls being shipped from Marseilles to all portions of the globe and I believe it after what I saw. Most of France is respectable, although prostitution is legal and is carried on under government regulation and supervision, which includes medical attention. But if there are any whores in France who are not diseased they ought to get gold medals. Even the respectable women seldom bathe—once a week is a very high average. They don’t change their underwear except on Sundays. That’s straight goods! But in every hotel we’ve been in you will find what is called a ‘bidet’, which is a little wash basin, sometimes separate, often times connected with the sink, which is intended for one purpose only—for women to wash their private parts. Taking them all in all, the French are a dirty, low-class, mean, greedy bunch. There isn’t a streak of generosity in their make-up. They are all out to make money and the worst part of it is they don’t know how to make it. By that I mean that they are poor business people. They overcharge you when they can, they make mistakes in figuring (due to ignorance of arithmetic), they are impolite and sullen, and do everything, in fact, to drive you out of the country. If we owned France, with all her beautiful country, vineyards, relics, ruins, monuments, art galleries, cathedrals and so on, we would make a harvest. The French just manage to make a living out of it—no more. They’re so damned wary and suspicious that they often are afraid to put their money in the bank for fear the bank will go under. If there was another war I don’t think the Americans would ever live up with these frogs again. Ask any soldier who was over here. Well, to get back to our travels. Last Sunday we went to a big bull-fight at a place called Nimes, which was once a Roman city, also B.C. We sat in a tremendous amphitheatre, built by the Romans (in a fine state of preservation). It holds 30,000 people, and on Sunday last it was packed. A great sight, I can tell you. Very colorful, impressive. Something to remember all your life. Any way, we saw six hefty bulls killed, one right after the other, by three famous toreadors, two of them Spanish, and one French. When they got through with the first bull I felt sick to my stomach. It’s a terribly brutal sight. The bull hasn’t got a chance in the world. Oh, once in awhile he kills his man, but damned seldom. We saw one horse killed and two men tossed to the ground but they were rescued before the bull could get at them properly. You see, with all the skill that these toreadors possess they often fail to kill the bull with the first lunge. They have to strike a certain vital spot behind the bull’s head to kill him outright. That spot is only as big as a silver dollar, and sometimes the bull is jabbed 8 and 9 times before he goes under. When they hit this spot he goes down on all four legs immediately and is stone dead. But long before this point is reached he is put through a hell of a lot of torture. They stick banderillos, six and eight of them in his flanks to enrage him, then the picadors, who sit on horse back, charge into him with long lances and gore him until you would think he was going to bleed to death. The bull’s back is usually covered with a broad belt of blood, about as wide as an ordinary Turkish towel. Sometimes the bull gets sick of it all and looks pathetically for the exit. But there’s no escape. He’s there to be slaughtered, and these people certainly enjoy the slaughter. It’s not really a sport. It’s truly a grand spectacle, and certainly no one ought to miss it, but it’s more like a religious sacrificial rite. In reality, of course, that’s just what it used to be. It’s a very ancient institution and there is a great deal of interesting traditions and there is a great deal of interesting traditions connected with it. I would advise you once again to read those two books of Ernest Hemingway—‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘Men Without Women.’ He had it down pat… At Arles we stopped at a hotel which was constructed right over some old Roman catacombs, dating from the reign of Augustus. Part of the Roman Forum was left standing and remains embedded in the walls of the hotel. The catacombs are very large and run in several directions. They were originally hiding places for the emperors and later on for the early Christians who were persecuted. We actually saw heaps of bones which were the remains of these early Christian martyrs. All the country here in this old section called ‘Provence’ is full of marvelous ruins. Ask Rhoda about it. She knows her French and Roman history, I imagine, and she can give you an idea of what I mean. The marvelous thing is that whatever the Romans attempted they did well. Their bridges, city ramparts, temples, arenas, forums, etc. stand today and will stand another thousand years easily. If it were not for the many wars and invasions which occurred in this section one would be able today to enjoy wonderful sights. From the way things look to me, however, Europe will see many more wars and many more invasions. This part of the world is the real uncivilized part, when it comes down to plain talk. The good old U.S.A. is so far ahead in most everything that I am actually becoming patriotic. By the way, just a little west of Arles and Marseilles is that country district of France which you pointed out to me in one of the issues of the ‘National Geographic’. We would have gone there but it’s a very dreary, desolate, swampy place and loaded with mosquitoes. Besides the cowboys are not much. No Tom Nix’s among them—no romance. So what’s the use? However, I didn’t realize at the time I read about them that it would be so short a time before I would see that country. We are now heading toward Nice, and will bicycle along the coast of the Mediterranean all the way. It keeps getting warmer as we travel on. Those long golf socks wear great. I wear nothing but them all the time. And your pipe still holds out. (I hope you read my letters occasionally to Mr. Goldstein.) Greetings, H.V.M. [Henry Valentine Miller]”.
If you’ve just read it, you know why you should own it!