“What do I find wrong with America? Everything. I begin at the beginning, the staff of life: bread. If the bread is bad, the whole life is bad.”from The Intimate Henry Miller, by Henry Miller, Signet, 1959
In his scathing essay, “The Staff of Life,” Henry Miller suggests that bread, and the way it is consumed, is the primary measure of a country’s “goodness,” or at least of its citizenry. If the mass market for bread is over-processed, over-manufactured artificial fluff, it is reflective of the choices the citizenry makes, and thus there is something rotten at the country’s core.
And that’s precisely what Miller found in America in the early 1940s when he came home after living in Europe for more than a decade.
Breaking literary norms
Miller was one of the “moveable feast” writers living in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, along with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others 1 His works of fiction, including The Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and The Rosy Crucifixion, broke from literary norms and often blurred the line between fiction and autobiography.
They were wild, exuberant novels full of colourful characters, explicit language, sex and mysticism. Miller was also an essayist on social issues and philosophical reflection. The courts considered Miller’s novels obscene and banned them in the U.S. until 1961.
“The Staff of Life” is a terrific rant against the core of American society (or North American society for our purposes) that is at once knee-slapping hilarious but also vicious in its critique—barbed and unrelenting. The essay was originally part of the second volume of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1947), an account of his year-long trip across America. We may think things have changed in the decades since it was published. But the more I consider, the more I believe Miller’s diatribe is still on point in 2022.
“Bread: prime symbol,” Miller begins.
“Try and find a good loaf. You can travel fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread. Americans don’t care about good bread. They are dying of inanition, but they go on eating bread without substance, bread without flavor, bread without vitamins, bread without life. Why? Because the very core of life is contaminated. If they knew what good bread was, they would not have such wonderful machines on which they lavish all their time, energy and affection. A plate of false teeth means much more to an American than a loaf of good bread.”
We’re bread aficionados in this web space, enlightened eaters of loaves baked in a wood-fired oven, made with whole grains, natural leaven (sourdough) and organic goodness. So it’s easy to say that things have improved since the 1940s.
But the vast majority of North Americans could care less about good bread. Consider the supermarket aisles piled high with mass-produced “bread-like products.” Look at the ingredient confusion on a plastic-wrapped “whole wheat bread” loaf: … calcium propionate, Sorbic acid, soybean lecithin, fungal alpha-amylase, sulphates, phosphates and high fructose corn syrup. Made on computer-driven assembly lines in a few hours, start to finish.
It seems crazy to put that stuff in our mouths! At yet we do! And I’m not completely innocent, either!
The bread is tasteless compared to a handmade loaf with locally grown ingredients. I’m not even mentioning brand names like Dempster’s, Country Harvest, or Wonder Bread. But you get the drift.
Consumed without consciousness
This kind of bread is consumed without consciousness. When you put it in your mouth, it doesn’t even register as bread. It’s foamed-up fluff, except when it carries something more flavourful, like peanut butter, gravy or ketchup. And its health consequences are grave, as people with gluten intolerance and celiac disease will tell you.
“Here is the sequence: poor bread, bad teeth, indigestion, constipation, halitosis, sexual starvation, disease and accidents, the operating table, artificial limbs, spectacles, baldness, kidney and bladder trouble, neurosis, psychosis, schizophrenia, war and famine. Start with the American loaf of bread so beautifully wrapped in cellophane, and you end on the scrap heap at forty-five.”
Miller states that America is a bread wasteland, except in “the ghettoes” and foreign quarters, such as the Jewish grocer or delicatessen.
“The dark Russian bread, light in weight, found only rarely on this huge continent, is the best bread of all. No vitamins have been injected into it by laboratory specialists in conformance with the latest food regulations. The Russian naturally likes good bread because he also likes caviar, vodka, and other good things.
“Americans are whiskey, gin and beer drinkers who long ago lost their taste for food — and losing that, they have also lost their taste for life. For enjoyment. For good conversation. For everything worthwhile, to put it briefly.”
The relative scarcity of good bread is symptomatic of a spiritual malaise, physical malaise, and poor health. If food isn’t consumed for its nourishment (for nothing is nourishing about most North American bread) or its enjoyment, there is nothing to be gained at all. The best diet in the world is useless if a person has no appetite, no enthusiasm, or sensuality.
“On the whole, Americans eat without pleasure. They eat because the bell rings three times a day.
“Throw anything down the hatch to stop the gnawing and swallow a dozen vitamins. That way you’ll make sure you’ve had your proper dose of the vital essentials.
“Should the vitamins fail, see a surgeon. From there to the sanitarium. And from there to the nut-house — or the dung heap. Be sure to get a Hollywood funeral. They’re the loveliest, the duckiest, the most sanitary, the most inspiring. … You can, if you like, have your dear lost one propped up in a natural reclining position, her cheeks rouged, a cigarette to her lips, and a phonograph record talking to you just as she once talked to you in life. The most wonderful fake imaginable.
“Jolly, what? O death, where is thy sting?
“What’s more, she can be kept that way for an unspeakably long period; the cigarette is guaranteed not to rot away before the lips or the buttocks. You can come back and have a second, a third, a twenty-fifth look at the beloved. Still smoking a cigarette. Or you can have her reading a book, The Iliad, say, or the Bhagavad Gita — something uplifting like that.”
Bread making and the search for comfort
It’s interesting to note that proper breadmaking made a slight resurgence during the COVID pandemic. People, banished from their workplaces, searched for comfort, activities that filled in the hours they’d otherwise spend in their offices.
Here, if they could get their hands on flour, they learned a bit about bread made in the traditional ways, with sourdough, whole grains, salt and water. Simple ingredients. They sought authentic flavour and enjoyed the connection with bread by getting their hands in the dough. They baked the bread in their own ovens; filled their homes with the aroma. They savoured their loaves and tasted the grain. They posted their bread triumphs on Facebook and Instagram.
“I’ve got this!” people proclaim. “From now on, we make our own bread!” 2
But now, people are making their way back to offices. The breadmaking craze seems to have passed, and many, I’m sure, are returning to their old bread habits.
Work is not life
Work is not life, the least of all work in offices. That’s not to say office life is terrible; there’s a synergy when people work face-to-face, a spark of creativity, and a social need fulfilled. But beyond this — the day-to-day strictures, the petty office tyrants and the monotony of daily meetings — there’s the whiff of toxicity that Miller describes so colourfully.
“Day by day the morons, epileptics and schizoids multiply. By accident, like everything else. Nothing is planned in America except improvements. And all improvements are for the machine. When a plenum is reached war is declared. Then the machine really gets going. War is a Roman Holiday for the machine. Man becomes even less than nothing then. The machine is well fed. The food products become plastics and plastics are what make the world go round, Better to have a good steering wheel than a good stomach.”
Is it possible the COVID interlude had some small effect on the North American work/life/food sensibility? That prolonged time-out that sent us back to our homes, face-to-face with our loved ones, and into our kitchens? To feel our bodies anew, to feed ourselves food that nourishes and promotes health? To rediscover the beauty in our lives, fresh air, great conversation, instead of the latest Netflix stream … the endless cycle of fear and consumption?
A dim view of American consciousness
Miller would still take a dim view of North American consciousness, even in a post-COVID world. He lived through the “Spanish Influenza” pandemic that began in 1918 3, which was even more devastating than the COVID pandemic. He would have been well aware of how quickly the outbreak was forgotten and how readily the world moved on to other issues. There was no leap in human consciousness, no mass rejection of lousy food. Bread got worse than ever. Miller might have argued.
It’s unlikely Miller’s “The Staff of Life” would be published in its current form in today’s world. Book publishers and magazine editors would clip his wings or try to. Like much of his writing, the essay is “out-there”: borderline racist, politically incorrect, and sure to offend some people.
And I apologize to those who find offence in some of the sections quoted here.
Razor intellect and optimism
But this is honest truth-telling, a valid critique of some aspects of society that were true in the 1940s and still valid today. It’s constructive commentary meant to raise our consciousness and point toward things that matter, something that we have lost sight of mid-way through 2022. And I am glad Henry Miller was allowed by his publishers to soar with his words, his razor intellect and, ultimately, his optimism.
“Eat your bread first, then maybe you won’t want to work in an office or a factory. Life begins with bread. And a prayer. Not a begging prayer, but a prayer of thanks. Don’t bless the block-busters. Bless God for his favors — air, water, sun, moon.
“God wants you to enjoy the bread of life. He never meant you to go out all day working at a job you loathe so that you can buy a loaf of store bread wrapped in cellophane. God gave us germs as well as air and water and sun. Germs attack only what is already rotting. Man is rotting in every fibre of his being: that is why he is a prey to germs. And that is why he is allergic to everything that is for his own good.”
I had difficulty finding Miller’s “The Staff of Life” essay online. When I finally laid my hands on The Intimate Henry Miller, which includes the essay, I scanned and formatted it so that it could be read in its entirety by anyone interested. You can read it here or download it.
The Canadian writer, Morley Callaghan, was also part of this group. His book, That Summer in Paris describes his famous boxing match with Hemingway.↩
My recommendation: the easiest bread to make is Jim Lahey’s “No-Knead Bread” recipe. It uses a small amount of commercial bread yeast instead of sourdough. But it’s flavourful, far more nutritious and satisfying than anything down that supermarket bread aisle. Try out the recipe posted here on the Happy Monk website! Let me know what you think if you make it!↩
The name “Spanish Influenza” is a misnomer, an “exonym” used in the practice of making new infectious diseases seem foreign … like Trump’s insistence that COVID should be called “The Chinese Virus” or “Kung Flu.” 😖↩
3 thoughts on “Henry Miller and The Staff of Life”
Thanks, Leslie … Despite my father’s brief obsession with Henry Miller, I haven’t read much of him. And when I first read this essay, I was a little surprised at the crudeness and borderline racist terminology. I also thought it was out of its time. Not quite relevant in this day. But his writing is strong, crystal clear and on closer examination I realized much of what he says is still true. A bit of an eye-opener! It makes me want to re-read Tropic of Cancer and Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. Have you read Henry Miller?
Every week another tasty surprise!