Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare

Travel writing about the American South is a genre of its own.   One such observer was Henry Miller, who traveled through the South in 1941.  Miller was born in 1891 in New York City and lived almost all of his life there until 1930 when he moved to Paris.  He spent almost all of the years between 1930 and 1939 in Paris until he moved to Greece in 1939 and lived there for a year or so before returning to the United States in 1940.  In 1942 he settled in California where he spent the rest of his life. 

Miller aspired to be a writer from an early age, but it wasn’t until his Paris years that he began to be published.  He wrote in an iconoclastic style that is not easily categorized.  He is considered by many to be an important American writer, although he has had his detractors.  At one time he was notorious for novels such as Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn that were banned in the United States for obscenity.  Miller was clearly not tied to convention.

After he returned to the United States in 1940, Miller embarked on an extensive year-long trip by car across the United States.  Starting out in the northeast, he turned south and then went across the country through the southwest to California.  He recorded his impressions in his book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, published in 1945.  This book is a collection of essays, some of which were written specifically about his trip and others that had been previously published.  Miller had quite a lot to say about the South in this book and also about the North and American culture in general.  It is interesting to see how things looked to Miller in 1941 and to consider where we are eighty years later.[1]

Miller recorded his first impression on his return to the United States which was on his arrival at Boston.  He found it hideous.

Returning to the boat we passed bridges, railroad tracks, warehouses, factories, wharves and what not. It was like following in the wake of a demented giant who had sown the earth with crazy dreams. If I could only have seen a horse or a cow, or just a cantankerous goat chewing tin cans, it would have been a tremendous relief. But there was nothing of the animal, vegetable or human kingdom in sight. It was a vast jumbled waste created by pre-human or sub-human monsters in a delirium of greed.

From Boston he went on to New York, or from bad to worse, writing that:

To the image of stark, grim ugliness which Boston had created was added a familiar feeling of terror … I felt as I had always felt about New York—that it is the most horrible place on God’s earth. Miller goes on to speculate on the nature of the people that had created the monstrosity that lay before him.  Instead of a people …democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred … we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like … What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?

From New York City he embarked on his trip, which began in Pittsburgh.  While contemplating a steel mill he was led to speculate on how it would be to have an “American Indian” (a Seminole) as a companion on the trip and what he would say to him.

I can almost hear him thinking—“So it was for this that you deprived us of our birthright, took away our slaves, burned our homes, massacred our women and children, poisoned our souls, broke every treaty which you made with us and left us to die in the swamps and jungles of the Everglades!”…

Before he headed south, Miller gave his evaluation of the “American Dream” and the “civilization” that had been created to realize it.   He recalled the bloody civil war and its result.

Torn some eighty years ago by the bloodiest civil war in the history of man and yet to this day unable to convince the defeated section of our country of the righteousness of our cause nor able, as liberators and emancipators of the slaves, to give them true freedom and equality, but instead enslaving and degrading our own white brothers. Yes, the industrial North defeated the aristocratic South—the fruits of that victory are now apparent. Wherever there is industry there is ugliness, misery, oppression, gloom and despair … by the queer irony of our system every potential boon to the human race is converted into an evil … This is what is called progress in the year 1941 in these United States of America.

For Miller, the symbol of the America that had come to be is the automobile:  on one hand, it provides an illusion of convenience and luxury.  But on the other hand, it exacts a terrible price.

The automobile stands out in my mind as the very symbol of falsity and illusion. There they are, thousands upon thousands of them, in such profusion that it would seem as if no man were too poor to own one. In Europe, Asia, Africa the toiling masses of humanity look with watery eyes towards this Paradise where the worker rides to work in his own car. What a magnificent world of opportunity it must be, they think to themselves. (At least we like to think that they think that way!) They never ask what one must do to have this great boon. They don’t realize that when the American worker steps out of his shining tin chariot he delivers himself body and soul to the most stultifying labor a man can perform. They have no idea that it is possible, even when one works under the best possible conditions, to forfeit all rights as a human being…. They see the glitter and paint, the baubles, the gadgets, the luxuries; they don’t see the bitterness in the heart, the skepticism, the cynicism, the emptiness, the sterility, the despair, the hopelessness which is eating up the American worker.

He saw little in the North that would redeem this sad situation.  Yet when Miller arrived in the South, he saw hope in the conditions there and in the remains of something that had not yet been subsumed and extinguished in the march of “Progress” from the North.  In Beaufort, South Carolina, for example, he saw a black man driving a bullock cart down the main street, yet remarked “… from the look on his face I take it that he was far better off than the poor devil in the steel mill who drives his own car. “

Then in Tennessee he saw “backward” white sharecroppers working in the fields but thought “… we need more backward people. In the subway in New York you can see the other type, the newspaper addict, who revels in social and political theories and lives the life of a drudge, foolishly flattering himself that because he is not working with his hands (nor with his brain either, for that matter) he is better off than the poor white trash of the South …”

Miller contrasted the South to what he found in places like Detroit or Pittsburgh (this is interestingly reminiscent of Henry Blue Kline’s essay in I’ll Take My Stand designating Detroit and New Orleans as the respective capitals of contrasting civilizations).  Contrasting New Orleans with Detroit, Miller says about New Orleans that … “[i]t is the only city in America where, after a lingering meal accompanied by good wine and good talk, one can stroll at random through the French Quarter and feel like a civilized human being.” 

Of Detroit, on the other hand, he observed:

The capital of the new planet—the one, I mean, which will kill itself off—is of course Detroit … You wouldn’t suspect that there was such a thing as a soul if you went to Detroit. Everything is too new, too slick, too bright, too ruthless. Souls don’t grow in factories. Souls are killed in factories—even the niggardly ones. Detroit can do in a week for the white man what the South couldn’t do in a hundred years to the Negro…

In contrast to the banal sterility Miller found in the North, the old, conquered South had a magnificence that still shone more than seventy-five years after its defeat.

THE SOUTHLAND is a vast domain about which one could go on writing forever. … The old South is full of battlefields, that is one of the first things which impress you. The South has never recovered from the defeat which it suffered at the hands of the North. The defeat was only a military defeat—that one feels very strongly. The Southerner has a different rhythm, a different attitude towards life. Nothing will convince him that he was in the wrong; at bottom he has a supreme contempt for the man of the North. He has his own set of idols—warriors, statesmen, men of letters—whose fame and glory no defeat has ever dimmed. The South remains solidly against the North, in everything. It wages a hopeless fight, very much like that of the Irish against England…

Miller was driven to exclaim in desperation, “Who knows what splendors might have blossomed forth from such nuclei as Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans!”

Nor was Miller unmindful of the slave culture which had supported the magnificent edifice of the antebellum South: 

Supporting it all, a living foundation, like a great column of blood, was the labor of the slaves. The very bricks of which the walls of the famous houses are made were shaped by the hands of the Negroes. Following the bayous the landscape is dotted with the cabined shacks of those who gave their sweat and blood to help create a world of extravagant splendor. The pretensions which were born of this munificence, and which still endure amidst the soulless ruins of the great pillared houses, are rotting away, but the cabins remain.

Miller lays the blame for this destruction of what might have been one of the great cultures in world history, and its replacement by the grim facade of contemporary Americat, squarely at the feet of the North.  He marvels at how quickly it had been destroyed or paved over, and he expected that to continue.  As he was writing eighty years after the destruction of the South began, we are now eighty years past the date of  his journey.  Under the guise of “Progress” the real South is being obliterated from consciousness.  Miller was uncanny in his timing.

At the rate we are going, in another hundred years or so there will be scarcely a trace or evidence on this continent of the only culture we have been able to produce—the rich slave culture of the South. New Orleans worships the past, but it watches impassively as the barbarians of the future bury the past cynically and ruthlessly. When the beautiful French Quarter is no more, when every link with the past is destroyed, there will be the clean, sterile office buildings, the hideous monuments and public buildings, the oil wells, the smokestacks, the air ports, the jails, the lunatic asylums, the charity hospitals, the bread lines, the gray shacks of the colored people, the bright tin lizzies, the stream-lined trains, the tinned food products, the drug stores, the Neon-lit shop windows to inspire the artist to paint. Or, what is more likely, persuade him to commit suicide.

Miller had far more to say about the South in his book than I can mention here, and his prose is eloquent.  He observed that despite military defeat and abrupt industrialization, the South had preserved many of its distinctive cultural rhythms and convictions. I am particularly impressed that Miller was a complete outsider to the South.  He had no southern affiliation at all.  He was born and bred in the North (New York City), the child of antebellum German immigrants.  He had no predisposition in favor of the South.  But he had been profoundly affected by the decade he lived in Europe and the contrast he saw between the centuries old European civilization he experienced there (even after the first world war)  in comparison with what he knew of American life from his own experience.  He saw something more human, more authentic, and more creative in the South.  It is worth noting that Miller was writing only a short time after the Nashville Agrarians published I’ll Take My Stand.  I don’t know if Miller was familiar with any of the Agrarians or their writings but his many of his observations seem congruent with their views.

Finally, Miller also had this to say: “It is all over now. A new South is being born. The old South was ploughed under. But the ashes are still warm.”  At least the ashes were still warm when Miller wrote those words.  Is the present scourge of the southern landscape really nothing more than a mopping up after the real destruction has already taken place?  After all, the South today is littered with automobile manufacturing plants.  Does the soul of Detroit prevail in those and elsewhere?  At a time when the so-called “triumph” of American civilization only inspires large numbers of its denizens to detest and attempt to destroy it, we have to ask, “what was the soul of the old South that Miller was able to see so clearly eighty years ago?”  What was the source of its (to Miller) evident superiority over the North?  The fact that few can say today (or are even allowed to ask) is only testament to its evisceration.


[1] All citations are from Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. New Directions (1945). Kindle Edition.

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