Wednesday, June 7th, 2023

“What Happened” by Merle Miller

WhatHappenedWhat Happened

by Merle Miller

Published by Harper & Row

Published 1972
342 pgs.

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

Merle Miller (1919–86) was born in Montour, Iowa. He grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa, and attended the University of Iowa and the London School of Economics.

Merle Miller at work

I don’t know if his last novel, What Happened (1972), is his best. I know that the best-selling one was his first, the 1948 WWII-veteran novel That Winter. And he is best-known for his Harry Truman oral history, Plain Speaking, and for coming out in the New York Times Magazine on January 17, 1971, “What It Means to Be a Homosexual” (what it was like being homosexual in the pre-gay-liberation era.)

The narrator of What Happened has only a taste of ashes left, and most everyone in the novel has come to a pathetic end, yet the novel is exhilarating and the narrator emerges at the end to deal with his spiritual son.

There is a lot of technical skill in this book, with no failure to imagine full worlds. It strains belief that four contemporaries from a small Iowa town all made it big in the great world, but the fall of the small town’s elite family is almost a cliché. So too is the artistic mother going crazy in the small-minded town.

One striking feature is four allusions to J. Edgar Hoover as homosexual and (I think in two) liking drag. He may have been dead by the time the book appeared (both occurred in 1972), but was not when it was written.

©1995, 2016, Stephen O. Murray
1 May 1995

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.