The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

ISBN: 0811201066
ISBN 13: 9780811201063
By: Henry Miller

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About this book

In 1939, after ten years as an expatriate, Henry Miller returned to the United States with a keen desire to see what his native land was really like—to get to the roots of the American nature and experience. He set out on a journey that was to last three years, visiting many sections of the country and making friends of all descriptions. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is the result of that odyssey.

Reader's Thoughts


The problem with this book wasn't that it was strictly bad. On the contrary, a reader gets a glimpse of some of Miller's talent as a writer, with pages upon pages of rhapsodic prose tumbling word upon word until the effect is less like a text and more like standing under a waterfall of imagery and ideas.Unfortunately that doesn't constitute the bulk of the book. What Miller offers is a trip around a country with which he is disgusted and alienated. It's unfair to either blame him for the cliché that this sort of work would turn into in subsequent decades or to suggest that many of his criticisms are inaccurate. But the vast majority of the text is comprised of sweeping generalizations about vast swaths of the country (about which he seems to know little); effete, snooty, and quasi-aristocratic attitudes about the people he encounters - the sort of ex-pat elitism that he attempts poorly to counterbalance with some patronizing support for a scattered handful of salt-of-the-earth types; and blatant, unabashed racism - again, that he attempts to cast as some sort of admiration for African-Americans, but is unmistakable in the acidic tinge that it carries. One is left wondering why, if America is the insatiable cultural vortex that Miller makes it out to be, he returned shortly after this was written and lived in California the remainder of his life.Ultimately, while it bears some marks of the brilliance that carried his best work, this is a somewhat forgettable footnote in an otherwise remarkable body of work.


Henry Miller's lush prose is gorgeous, but he seems to get distracted about a third of the way through.Regardless, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is a great motivation to leave the US, if only I could afford...

Marc Horton

Finally got around to this dyspeptic travelogue, in which Miller returns from Paris, travels around the late 1930's-early 1940's U.S. of A., and, apparently, throws up a little bit in his mouth daily from Mobile to Manhattan. What you imagine to be the quintessential Henry Miller voice is here--sort of like Tropic of Cancer without all the sex--and chock full of classic Miller bon mots: "The American park is a circumscribed vacuum filled with cataleptic nincompoops." Still, it had to have been worth it, no? Well,..: "When I think of what I would have seen in Europe, Asia or Africa, in the space of ten thousand miles, I feel as though I had been cheated." Worth picking up for the adventurous reader convinced that there was a time when American wasn't a cultural wasteland devoid of art, and tragically severed from nature.

Tom Lichtenberg

Reading the prologue to this book by Henry Miller astonishes me. Written 70 years ago, it could have been written today. Some excerpts:It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress - but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful ... Whatever does not lend itself to being bought or sold ... is debarredWe are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred. This is the melting pot, the seat of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble, idealistic sentiment. Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. 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?

Procyon Lotor

Qualche eccessivo giudizio negativo � noto figlio della francesizzazione di HM. Comunque questa � l'America che non visitate, che non vedete che � maggioritaria e che spiega come mai chi si ferma a New York poi non capisce un amato cavolo di cosa fanno gli USA. Troppo lirico per essere un reportage, troppo fotografico per essere un romanzo, � un bel libro che in cambio di qualche informazione sull'anima del Signor Henry Miller ce ne dice molte di pi� sulla Signora America. La sua scarsa diffusione � certamente un complotto degli inviati che giammai vogliono divulgare una delle loro fonti sociologiche e antropologiche primarie. Ma ci sono io. Ricordatevelo bene, cari lettori. Siete sempre i primi a sapere le cose: di prima mano, garantite al cento per cento e in via molto, ma molto confidenziale... :-D


I found this to be a weak interpretation of what should be an epic road trip. There are wonderful moments of truthfulness, but for the most part the tone makes it seem like a stretch for a paycheck. I don’t believe that a man as brazen as Mr. Miller would continue a journey of this sort for such a long amount of time if he really hated it so. Why would he make this trip, come to these conclusions, and then retire in a country that banned his capstone works? He acts like he is making objective observations, but his descriptions American life are so emotive that he makes me feel like a fool for ever doubting him. That’s how I know he’s up to no good! The Tropic series is full of beauty and mystery, but this seems like he was starving in a public library scheming up ways to drum up some cash. As much as I dislike this book, I will admit that he noticed our throw-away culture before most people would have defined the beginning period: I have always heard that it was September of ’45 when everyone came back from the war with money in their pockets. We got the suburbs, and all the throw away convinces that came with them… Perhaps he was trying to write a book as throw-away as the society he found. If this was his intent –this man is a genius!


It's a shame that Miller didn't make it to the millennium (though he died at 88 years of age; 1891-1980), although I would imagine he lived long enough to see how right his bleak vision of our self-destructive world come to fruition - for lack of a better word. No man ever will be ahead of his time quite like Miller was, and despite his being ridiculed at the time for his vulgar outlook on the world, he has since become a legend in his own right. I can't begin to convey how enamored I am by his works, especially 'The Air-Conditioned Nightmare'... Everyone knows him of course for his Obelisk Trilogy (Tropic of Cancer/Capricorn and Black Spring), but I firmly believe he is at the top of his game in this book. It's a memoir of everything that's wrong with humanity... It's so majestically written I can't even conjure up the words to explain it. I can't recommend a better read for a realist. Do yourself a favor and read Miller; especially this volume of immaculate confusion and wayward perfection.


It's great to read some one's long rambling explanation about how much they hate America during a presidential campaign.


Like I did last summer, Henry Miller traveled across the country beginning in 1939. Unlike me, he fucking hated it. This is not why I didn't like his book - some of the best travel writing is born of hatred and disgust. It was the structure and the tone of the hatred that really irked me.First, the tone. Much of this book consists of the whiny laments of a starving artist against The Man. Maybe this was groundbreaking in 1945 when the book was published. But in 2013 it just sounded kind of, well, whiny. It was along the lines of: artists are the only authentic people and commercialism is ruining everything and one day the people will rise up and dispose of the tyrants and live in artistic harmony, amen. At the same time, Miller openly describes his frustrating efforts to try and secure a book deal prior to his trip. I guess he wants to have his cake, as well as eat it his cake, or however the saying goes. His generalizations were also obnoxious: all Southern people are distinguished and unique, all Northern people are soul-sucking urban dwellers, all Native Americans are at one with nature and should re-claim America, etc. There were few shades of gray in his depictions of the people of this country. Second, the structure. The best parts of the book were when Miller took us on his journey, as a typical travelogue does. But most of the book is not like that. It is comprised of essays, and the worst are the ones entirely removed from the narrative of the trip that seem to function as filler, and that filler is mostly of the whiny starving artist kind. There were a few wonderful moments - the description of his time in a small town in the Southwest, the troubles with his car - but these were few and far between.


Other people feel that you should like this Miller offering. I disagree. I had to force my self to finish the damn thing. Not to say that there aren't some good pieces, there are. Unfortunately, there aren't nearly enough, and most seemed to be relegated to the end of the book. As a collection of previously published stories, I suppose I should have expected this. The hustle - return from across the Atlantic for a cruise of the state of America, hopefully funded by a Guggenheim fellowship - is worth a chuckle. Miller is at his best, in my opinion, when writing about more intimate details. His "life", the people close to him, his struggles to write. When he's "on" the insanity and humor float him along. At times he seems to stall, break out his thesaurus and drone on. That said, there are several broad ideas that still resonate today, and you might be hard pressed to distinguish Miller's view of the American cesspool from those who reside here today. Just like Miller, you eventually pull the diamonds (essentially interesting people and places) from the turd, and accept that there can sometimes be more turd than diamonds.

Ryan Murdock

Though Henry Miller’s book on Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi, is generally regarded as his greatest achievement, he also wrote a second travel book which should be regarded as a definite classic of the genre.The Air-Conditioned Nightmare chronicles Miller’s return to America in 1939, hot on the heels of the Greek trip referred to above, and from what he believed would be an open-ended life in France. The journey begins on a note of hope: “I wanted to have a last look at my country and leave it with a good taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to run away from it, as I had originally. I wanted to embrace it, to feel that the old wounds were really healed.” Instead, he finds despair: a nation where giant industries deaden the lives of their workers while polluting the environment, and a population which seeks nothing greater than credit, cheap cars, and vapid mass consumerism. It says a great deal that many of Miller’s scathing critiques are just as relevant today.And yet the book contains a note of hope. It’s also a celebration of those rare individuals—eccentrics, artists, and creative people of all stripes—whose stubborn resilience represents everything that made the nation great in the first place. A few years after this trip, Miller finally made peace with the land of his birth. He found his paradise in Big Sur, California, and that is where he lived out the rest of his life.

Joshua Buhs

Scorching--if ultimately flawed.The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is Henry Miller's recounting of his trip across the United States after war forced him to leave Europe. Coming out at the end of the war, when patriotism was high, its excoriating of the country would have won him few general plaudits, even as it contributed to his cult status.In characteristic Miller fashion, he eschews the obvious linear narrative--first here, then here--and opts for a spiral form. Even so, at first, the book shows a discipline his post-war works (at least those I've read) lacks. He drills down, avoids the simple declarations that mars his later work ("This astounded me!" "I was overwhelmed!") and is specific. He contrast his experiences in Pittsburgh and Detroit with his reading of books on mystics, seeing America as a purely plastic country, concerned with only the material. “Nothing comes to fruition here except utilitarian projects," he summarizes later int he book (157). Indeed, the book ends with him flipping a giant bird to the Guggenheim Foundation; he had applied for a grant but been turned down, and so lists the other winners as an appendix, highlighting how many of them were focused on the material and the economic rather than the spiritual and freedom.Miller says that his view of America can be written in thirty pages--but really it can be reduced to a single sentence: “The American park is a circumscribed vacuum filled with cataleptic nincompoops" (59).His bill of particulars is not entirely wrong, and he offers some interesting insight into the left-liberatarianism that opposed World War II. He saw small people as manipulated into fighting a battle that was not theirs, forced to put their lives on the line for someone else's mistakes. Miller wanted a world without obligations--only gratuities. And he wanted a spiritual revolution to support this new society. He hated America for showing no inclination in this way.But one also starts to see why George Orwell turned on Miller for valuing individuality above politics. He dismisses Hitler as a madman who will pass in time as do all other dictators--and so his movements in Europe should not concern him at all. Of course, Hitler's evil was spectacular, and required a spectacular response. One imagines Miller in German would have had a very different opinion of whether other countries should have intervened. As well, he ends up celebrating the South for holing onto its culture of gentility--completely ignoring that this culture was in part myth and in total dependent upon acts of terroristic violence. He supported 'negro' culture--and saw it, as did many intellectuals of the time--as the refuge of American soul--but does not try to connect that culture to the violence which surrounded it.Miller's admiration for American blacks is patronizing, but this affection is an important part of the point that he is trying to make. In his travels through the south and southwest he comes across a number of eccentric characters--kooks, we might call them today, creating their own systems of philosophy, creating new kinds of art--new music, new paintings. They are quiet, outside the mainstream, but--as he suggests in his epigram--Miller sees these people as true saints: it is these little people whose ideas are later synthesized by the great mystics, like Christ and Buddha. This is the foundation of a possible new world--the utopia of which he dreamed.And I appreciate his point, but in addition to a certain amount of condescension, there is a real lack of discipline as the book continues, his chapters on New Iberia way too long and tangential. The lack of discipline ends up undermining the books natural narrative course. (Miller often imagined much better books than he wrote: this was originally to be a series of essays with accompanying watercolors, but that never came to be.)He finally reaches California, which is a kind of resolution. He had expected California to be horrible--and Hollywood certainly had some of those aspects--but there's a different part of California, too, one where he can practice his freedom, one closer to the coast. He even came to like the Pacific, which he had not expected. In some ways, this is a coming home: he had been in California as a young man--and compares the return to his starting A.P. Sinnett's _Esoteric Buddhism_ in Brooklyn and finishing it in Paris: nothing had changed. California, too; nothing had changed, but he had. _The Air-Conditioned Nightmare_ was published in 1945, by which time he was settled in Big Sur, and falling in love with the place (though probably still planning to leave for Europe).Rather than end here, he circles back again--one too many loop-dee-loops--back to Europe, back to artists he likes, and back to the south. The book peters out and ends on a bitter note, with him again celebrating values of the Confederacy. Miller is, of course, free to like whatever he likes, but there is no way the Confederacy stands for anything like the libertarian freedom he values. It is an overshoot, one that ultimately works agains the book and seems to make Miller nothing more than a contrarian. Which is a shame: because he had more wisdom than that.

F.J. Nanic

I am just amazed how many Americans have not even heard about this book...but then again, many didn't hear about Depleted Uranium Weapons either.


I never considered myself a patriot, until I read this book and felt so fiercely insulted by every trivial insult he flung at all things american. I was fleeing Charleston at the time, and driving through the Smokey Mountains--which were incredible. His arguments seemed extremely petulant ("the parks in america aren't as good as the parks in europe. The stores in america aren't as good as the stores in Europe," etc, etc, etc), and I knew he had no idea what he was talking about when he stopped to make an exception for Charleston, saying it was the only place in America worth going to. I beg to differ.


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