Henry Miller's letters to a Bradley University alum still hold powerful messages today about sex and censorship
Bradley University is unlocking a treasure trove of letters an often-controversial author penned to a woman throughout a years-long correspondence.
It's perhaps serendipidious the Virginius H. Chase Special Collections Center chose Banned Books Week to speak with WCBU about the letters Henry Miller wrote to Irma Stein between 1941 to 1957. Many of his books were banned in the United States for obscenity for decades until a seminal 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case.
"He was most notorious for using sex in in his novels in a very unvarnished sort of way," said James Decker, an English professor at Illinois Central College and editor of Nexus, the International Henry Miller Journal. "He'll move from a depiction of sex or using obscenities to a discussion of Matisse or a discussion of music within the span of a single page."
Stein was a Bradley alumnus. She donated the letters and other materials to Bradley in 1995, but ordered they remain sealed until her death. She died in 2002.
"There's still this stigma about his work and the topic of sex and talking about sex in the public or openly that Irma Stein never shook," said Libby Tronnes, head of special collections. "And so there is that secrecy still when she donated the collection, even though she chose to preserve it and leave it with us."
In the early '40s, Stein frequented the Argus Bookstore in Chicago. Proprietor Ben Abramson received a letter from Stein about one of Miller's books that she'd bought. Abigayle Spear is an access services coordinator who previously worked as a student worker sorting through the materials in Bradley special collections. She said the bookseller was intrigued enough to forward the letter to Miller.
At the time, Stein was a single, 37-year-old woman in Chicago working as a bookkeeper at a gas company. She was embarassed by her own lack of experience with intimacy, and she sometimes referred to herself as an "old maid." Tronnes said she and Miller wrote each other about sex at a time where it wasn't often discussed openly.
"She feels very ordinary to me and very familiar, I think," Tronnes said. "And I think Abi and I both really shared a lot of Irma's concerns about, well, you know, what is the future for us? How can we make a meaningful life? What if we're wasting our time on this or that? And so these are things that people go through in their lives. And Irma has all those anxieties that we can glean from Henry Miller's letters."
Stein enlisted in the Women's Army Corps during World War II, but her correspondence with Miller continued while she was overseas and after she returns home.
Spear said their relationship is hard to define.
"I think it's really hard to say exactly how deep the relationship was, especially because we don't have Irma's letters. And some of the things that Henry says that are of a more intimate nature allude to there being more than just a friendship or just an acquaintanceship," Spear said. "I think if they had been in the right place at the right time, it might have turned into something more, but I don't think it went horribly far, especially because I don't think they met in person very often."
Spear said their correspondence gradually tapered off, as Miller married and had kids, and Stein began to move on.
Most of the contents of the collection can fit into two boxes. In addition to correspondence, Miller also sent Stein inscribed books, and watercolor paintings he'd done. While many of Miller's letters survive, only one of Irma's letters is contained among the effects.
"It's really tough and frustrating, to not have more of her voice. But then you realize how much of her is actually in the letters. Henry Miller will sometimes quote her back to herself," Tronnes said. She said she hopes more connections can be made linking back to Stein.
That one remaining letter from Stein is actually the same one that Abramson, the Chicago bookseller, would later forward to Miller. She wrote Abramson in 1941 to thank him for the copy of Miller's Tropic of Cancer that he'd procured for her. Since the book was still banned in America, the book was likely smuggled in or illegally published under a pseudonym.
Many of the books Stein donated to Bradley's special collections center have their covers obscured by gift wrap or packing paper. That was meant not only to hide the taboo books from public view, but also to protect the people who'd obtained them for her.
She wrote Abramson that she was initially reluctant to crack open the "filthy, sexy book," but eventually decided to "get over that kid stuff" and read it anyway. She tells Abramson that the words within delighted her, and she felt as if she could have written them herself.
"It gives me more courage to be myself despite what the rest of the world thinks. Maybe the rest of the world hides its true self from me, or maybe my eyes are not opened yet. Being an adolescent at the age of almost 40 is an experience most people know nothing about," Stein wrote. "Started to boast there, but after a little thinking, guess I'm not very proud of that fact."
Decker, the ICC professor and Miller scholar, said Miller's relationship with Stein that started in the early 1940s isn't mentioned at all in published biographies.
"It very much complicates a picture of Miller, who is off of a very difficult break up with Anaïs Nin, and then he's still trying to get her to to leave her husband to marry him, right? He's drifting. He's trying to find a place to live," said Decker. "And all the while he's doing that, here's the secret relationship with Irma Stein that no one knew about. And that's pretty amazing."
Decker said there's also another important message to glean from the letter that Stein sent to Abramson in 1941. The challenges she faced getting around book bans more than 80 years ago are still relevant today, and he said the harms of censorship also remain the same.
"Those very books that might get someone on a new path, that might connect to their identity, are the very ones that are being targeted," he said.
Tronnes agreed. She said Miller often wanted to wake people up with his writing, and Stein must have felt her honest discussions with the author about sex were worth preserving.
"The message is important to her, clearly, that you should be who you are and not be silenced," Tronnes said.