The House That Henry Built

by Jim Knipfel

Lord knows, I'm not a religious man. Fact is, I can't say I know many religious people. Yet among the folks I do know, especially those who have no faith, most all of them have a personal Mecca, a Wailing Wall of their very own, a physical spot from which they draw their strength, their hope, their redemption, their will to continue when everything else tells them to pack it in.

For one, it's the Point, a rocky park jutting out into Lake Michigan from Chicago's South Side. For another, it's Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, just a few blocks away. Others have certain bars, certain parks, certain buildings. Myself, I have my own, sure. Just a regular old Brooklyn brownstone, nearly identical to every other old brownstone along that block, kitty-corner from a huge old stone church, across the street from a laundromat. I've never been inside this building, but hardly a weekend goes by that I don't go out of my way to walk past it, pause a second to pay my respects, then continue on my way, feeling a little foolish, but a little brighter at the same time. When everything else lets me down, this solid, silent rowhouse will always be standing there.

In 1917, in what some biographers claim was just a desperate attempt to avoid the draft, Henry Miller married his first wife, Beatrice. He moved out of his parent's house, and the two of them moved into a brand new brownstone duplex at 244 Sixth Ave. in Park Slope.

It was a loveless marriage by all accounts, marked by cruelties large and small on both sides. Henry hated Beatrice because he thought she was a caricature of a frumpy, nagging housewife. She hated him because he was either out fucking around, or bringing his obnoxious friends home with him. Still, they stayed together, and in 1919, Beatrice gave birth to their first child, Barbara, which didn't help things much.

Henry eventually landed a job at Western Union (Tropic of Capricorn's "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company"). This, too, only made things worse, giving him an easy excuse to stay away from the apartment, and in 1921, the Millers separated, Beatrice going to Rochester and Henry going to live with a friend in Manhattan. The separation only last a few months, though, before they attempted a reconciliation and moved back into the place on Sixth Ave.

Well, then Henry ran into June at a dance hall, and that was that. A few weeks later, Beatrice came home early from a "vacation" she'd decided to take with Barbara, and walked in on Henry making breakfast for June. A divorce was filed, Henry married June on June 1st, 1924, and the two of them moved to Brooklyn Heights (91 Remsen St., to be exact).

It was in the Park Slope apartment, however, that Miller first decided to become a writer. He installed a big writing desk in the upstairs parlor and started typing--hopelessly, clumsily, sporadically, pretentiously. It was in that parlor, at that desk, that he wrote his first published work (for Black Cat magazine), and his first attempt at a novel. Clipped Wings, a collection of 12 interconnected character sketches of some of the men he worked with at Western Union, exists only in scraps today, bits and pieces picked up and plugged into later novels.

Throughout his career, Miller kept returning to his time on Sixth Ave. Moloch, or This Gentile World, his first extant novel, is a rambling, overwrought, unpleasant portrait of his job and his imploding marriage to Beatrice, was published by Grove in 1992, after being discovered in 1988 by Mary Dearborn, author of the mean-spirited biography, The Happiest Man Alive. His days in that brownstone also appear in Tropic of Capricorn and Sexus.

I read a lot when I was a kid. Still do. Certain novels astonished me back then, back when I was still discovering things. Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, Knut Hamsun's Hunger shocked me in such a way that I thought, "My God, human beings simply aren't capable of this anymore." I found it hard to believe that they were ever capable of writing such things. They had to've been possessed by something, some demon, some force beyond them, feeding them the words. Given that I had every intention of being a theoretical physicist, this wasn't any form of discouragement; whatever happened to these men, whatever went wrong with them that allowed them to write such things, I was glad that these books existed.

It wasn't until I first read Henry Miller in junior high--Black Spring, it was--that I first thought, "My God, maybe human beings are still capable of doing this." (At the time, Miller was still alive.) "The Fourteenth Ward," quite literally, brought tears to my eyes first time I read it--this incredible rush of words and sights and smells all piled up on one another.

It wasn't right then and there that I decided to start putting my silly, stupid little stories down on paper. That didn't come until years later, after leaving graduate school and moving to Philadelphia with no jobs, no plans and no hopes. But that's another story.

Miller was the one I turned to when I thought it just might be possible. I'm certainly not alone in that. In fact I still have a paragraph from Tropic of Cancer taped above my desk--a paragraph from early in the book which begins, "When a man appears, the world bears down on him and breaks his back. There are always too many rotten pillars left standing, too much festering humanity for a man to bloom..." It's his argument that one day, a man will appear who will put his complete experience down on paper--absolutely everything that exists in his head and his heart without flinching--and that act alone will be enough to destroy the world.

When I was young and brash and arrogant, new to the whole game, of course I thought I was that man. We all do, at one time or another. I know better than to think such things now.

I was talking to my friend Larry a few days ago. Larry's a painter and a good one. I hadn't seen him for awhile, so I asked him how his work was coming along.

"I'm making it as simple as possible," he told me. "I'm trying to strip away any theoretical baggage and just painting simple paintings--because let's face it, none of us are going to change the world, none of us are going to do anything new, anything that hasn't been done before. So we should just try to do what we can do as well as we possibly can. Just use the basics."

Larry's very wise for someone his age.

To this day, when everything's drying up around me, when the musty, cold boredom sets in, I turn back to Miller the way a stumbling Catholic might turn back to the lessons of one of the saints before turning back to the lessons of Christ. Miller was one of us, just a man, full of failure and bad times. A man who, by God, had blood flowing through his veins. I can turn back to him before I can turn back to Dostoevsky, who was working with a different power source completely.

So, corny as it is, that's why I try to pay weekly homage to Miller's old apartment, just a few short blocks from my own (something I didn't discover until living there six months). He moved to the neighborhood newly married, as I did. He was about the same age, too. And his marriage lasted about as long. And, as it turns out, I was married on June 1st, too. Not that any of this means a goddamn thing. It doesn't. But it is a tiny (black) spring of some kind of hope, in a life that usually doesn't allow such things. We take what we can get. And if what we can get is walking past a building, just like all the other buildings along that block, no brass plaques or neon signs out front to note its significance, looking up at the polished oak and glass double doors and thinking, "Henry Miller used to walk in and out of those doors every day. He used to walk down this sidewalk. He looked out his windows and saw that church," and if that means something to me, well, dammit, I'll take it.

Once, while walking past--and only once did this happen--I saw some folks sitting out on the stoop. I balled up my courage and stopped in front of them.

"Excuse me," I said to a youngish couple, maybe a few years older than me, with a baby. "Forgive me for asking, uhh, but do you live here?" I gestured up at the door and the fateful address.


"When you moved in, did anyone tell you about the, ahh, former tenants?"

They looked at each other briefly, then back at me, suspicious. I suppose I looked like I was there to ask if they had any bottles I could collect, or to tell them about all the murders that took place there. "No...why?"

"Just wondering. This is Henry Miller's old place. Lived here with his first wife. This was his first apartment outside of his parent's place."


"Henry Miller's."

They looked at each other again, more suspicious.

"Never knew him."

"Uh-huh. Well, sorry to've bothered you. Never mind." I wished them a good day and continued on to get my groceries. It bothered me for an instant, maybe, and then faded. It wasn't their fault, being illiterate and all. If someone were to ask me if I was aware that some famous shortstop from the Brooklyn Dodgers used to live in my place, I'd probably give them the same shrugging response before watching them walk away, shaking their heads in disbelief.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.

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