Tropic of Cancer Miller, Henry
Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller
American novelist, critic, short story writer, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Miller's novel Tropic of Cancer (1934). See also Daisy Miller Criticism, Henry Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 14.
Tropic of Cancer (1934), Miller's most famous and acclaimed work, is a lyrical, profane, and surreal portrait of the author's experiences in the bohemian underworld of 1930s Paris. The novel was a personal and artistic break-through for Miller, who was an obscure and impoverished writer when it was first published. The theme of sexual and artistic liberation, which pervades Tropic of Cancer, manifests itself in its Whitmanesque poetic embrace of sexuality, its open disdain for the constraints of bourgeois society, and its declarations of antagonism toward the conventions of the modern novel. At one point Miller writes: "This is not a book … this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art…." While some critics have dismissed Tropic of Cancer as a merely autobiographical rant which is reckless and nihilistic in its abandonment of literary conventions, others have recognized Miller's notoriously liberal use of profanity and sexual description as an attempt to broaden the expressive means of the novel. The unusually polemical and partisan tenor of much early criticism on Miller's novel should be considered against the background of its publication history. Before Grove Press won its censorship struggle in the early 1960s, Tropic of Cancer was ruled obscene and its sale was banned in the United States and England.
Plot and Major Characters
Tropic of Cancer begins with the narrator describing his companions, whom he depicts as bohemian aesthetes living in varying degrees of squalor. He disdains Moldorf as a "word-drunk" poetaster and dismisses Van Norden and Sylvester as failed writers, reserving his praise for Boris and Carl, who are "mad and tone deaf … sufferers." The protagonist also sings paeans to the sex organs of Tania and Llona, describes his love of prostitutes, Parisian vistas, and food, and relates his methods for cadging meals from his wealthier friends. Interspersed among these thoughts are statements that reject the conventional standards of literature and art for the spontaneous stream of consciousness which eludes artistic representation. In a conversation with Van Norden, and in watching him make love to an impoverished prostitute, the narrator realizes that his companion's understanding of sex and women is adolescent, reductive, and mechanical. On visiting an art gallery to view the paintings of Henri Matisse, the narrator expresses admiration for the vivacity and transformative power of the artist's work and recognizes a dramatic contrast between Matisse's vision and the lifeless materialism of Van Norden and Carl. After failing to seduce Tania, the narrator tries to alleviate his depression through drinking and brawling. He meets Fillmore, another neurotic American expatriate, whose attitude toward women is as degenerate as Van Norden's. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator travels to Dijon where he makes a cursory attempt at teaching a course in English. Upon his return, he accompanies a despondent and spiteful Fillmore to the train station before the latter departs for America. Pathetic in the naivete of his deflated idealism, Fillmore's whiny tirade against France allows the narrator to comprehend his own resilience in the "cancerous" environment of Paris.
A central theme of Tropic of Cancer, as suggested by its title, is the pervasive sickness and squalor of modern society and the resulting degeneracy of its literature. In reacting against conventional art and morality, Miller's protagonist adopts a Whitmanesque attitude of unblinking acceptance and affirmation and announces his intention of "recording … all that which is omitted in books." The novel's descriptions, animated by a celebratory, ribald tone, frequently linger on the deviant and sordid elements of Parisian life, particularly its prostitutes and vagabonds, and dramatize the protagonist's freedom from the lifestyles and conventions of mainstream society. This theme of personal emancipation accounts for the audacious liberties Miller takes with Tropic of Cancer's style, a pastiche of poetic exultation, bland pornography, and the banalities of a personal diary. On occasion, Miller explicitly rails against conventional artists and denounces their adherence to established artistic norms as a lack of passion and verve. Erica Jong has suggested that this theme has strong autobiographical undertones since Miller's first attempts at fiction were derivative and unsuccessful, and Tropic of Cancer was written while he was "finding himself" as an artist.
While Tropic of Cancer's setting and some of its themes evoke comparisons with the works of other expatriate American writers living in Paris in the 1920s and '30s, Miller's experiments with form in this work signal a uniquely radical departure from the conventions of the modern novel, and its extremities of expression and style have elicited sharply divergent critical opinions. For some, Miller's blatant disregard for a coherent and linear plot and his exclusive adherence to autobiography are symptomatic of his failure as a novelist. A similarly dismissive and disdainful view is taken by critics who view Miller's liberal use of profanity as little more than impish prurience. At the opposite extreme, such professional associates and friends as Lawrence Durrell and Anaïs Nin circumvent aesthetic and formal objections to Tropic of Cancer by praising it as a "vitalizing" or "nourishing" antidote to the arid intellectualism and effete sentimentality of the modern novel. Because Tropic of Cancer's legal troubles quickly made it a cause célèbre, early reviews of the novel tend to be compromised by an eagerness to either validate or indict Miller for his use of profanity and sexual candor. In the wake of other highly publicized victories over censorship, notably, Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) and William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959), numerous studies have appeared which focus more objectively on the literary merits of Tropic of Cancer. While some feminist critics attack Miller for what they view as his blatant sexism, others contend that Tropic of Cancer embraces an emancipatory conception of women, insofar as its celebration of sexual freedom flouts the social constraints of marriage and bourgeois morality. Other commentators have suggested that Miller's imagery and visionary rhetoric are more articulate and complex than would be suggested by the author's chaotic style of writing. Although there is little overall consensus on Tropic of Cancer's literary value, novelist Norman Mailer argues that it is "one of the ten or twenty great novels of our century."
Tropic of Cancer (novel) 1934
Black Spring (novel) 1936
Max and the White Phagocytes (essays and stories) 1938
The Cosmological Eye (essays) 1939
Tropic of Capricorn (novel) 1939
The World of Sex (essay) 1940
The Colossus of Maroussi (travelogue) 1941
Sunday after the War (memoir) 1944
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (essays) 1945
∗Sexus (novel) 1949
∗Plexus (novel) 1953
Quiet Days in Clichy (essay) 1956
The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (criticism) 1956
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (essays) 1957
∗Nexus (novel) 1960
The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation (criticism) 1980
Crazy Cock (novel) 1992
∗These works were published in one volume as The Rosy Crucifixion in 1965.
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SOURCE: A preface to Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller, Grove Weidenfeld, 1961, pp. xxxi-xxxiii.
[A French-born American autobiographer, novelist, short story writer, and educator, Nin established her early artistic reputation through experimental novels exploring the feminine psyche and through her association with Miller, whom she met in Paris in 1932 when he was writing the early drafts of Tropic of Cancer. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1934 as a preface to the first edition of Tropic of Cancer, she praises Miller for addressing the visceral roots of human experience.]
Here is a book which, if such a thing were possible, might restore our appetite for the fundamental realities. The predominant note will seem one of bitterness, and bitterness there is, to the full. But there is also a wild extravagance, a mad gaiety, a verve, a gusto, at times almost a delirium. A continual oscillation between extremes, with bare stretches that taste like brass and leave the full flavor of emptiness. It is beyond optimism or pessimism. The author has given us the last frisson. Pain has no more secret recesses.
In a world grown paralyzed with introspection and constipated by delicate mental meals this brutal exposure of the substantial body comes as a vitalizing current of blood. The violence and obscenity are left unadulterated, as manifestation of the...
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SOURCE: "Inside the Whale," in his The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: An Age Like This, 1920–1940, Vol. 1, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pp. 493-502.
[An English novelist and essayist, Orwell is the author of such well-known works as Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) as well as the autobiographical narrative Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). His essays evince a profoundly moral concern for the victims of economic, political, and social exploitation. In the following excerpt from an essay that was originally published in New Directions in Prose and Poetry in 1940, he applauds Miller's use of vernacular and poetic language in Tropic of Cancer to vividly portray the lives of impoverished American expatriates in 1930s Paris.]
When Henry Miller's novel, Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography. Among the people who praised it were T. S. Eliot, Herbert Read, Aldous Huxley, John dos Passos, Ezra Pound—on the whole, not the writers who are in fashion at this moment. And in fact the subject-matter of the book, and to a certain extent its mental atmosphere, belong to the 'twenties rather than to the 'thirties.
Tropic of Cancer is a novel in the first person, or autobiography in the form of a...
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SOURCE: "Tropic of Cancer," in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 211-16.
[Kauffmann is an American dramatist, critic, and educator. In the following essay, which was written shortly after the first legal publication of Tropic of Cancer in the United States, he assesses Miller as a minor figure in American literature—a bawdy and funny provocateur, but one whose incessant use of scatological language and amateur philosophy reveals an immature and unsophisticated cast of mind.]
Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is now published in this country in an unlavish edition of 318 pages set in big type at the price of $7.50—and this in spite of a large first printing. The interest of the price is that here it relates to the content of the book—not, as is usual, to its length or format. The publisher knows that the public knows the book's reputation and is willing to pay much more than is currently charged for books of similar production cost. This gives, from the start, a different atmosphere to its publication. Rather than call it cashing in on prurience, let us say that the publisher is asking the purchaser to make a contribution to a defense fund in case of legal prosecution, although no provision is made for refunding, say, three dollars per copy if the publisher is unmolested.
The book itself, first...
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SOURCE: "The Pitching of Love's Mansion in the Tropics of Henry Miller," in Seven Contemporary Authors, edited by Thomas B. Whitbread, University of Texas Press, 1966, pp. 129-53.
[Friedman is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he remarks on past critical opinion and legal actions concerning Tropic of Cancer, examines contradictions in some of the book's central themes, and concludes that Tropic of Cancer is ultimately a work of negation rather than affirmation.]
More than any other year, 1926 climaxed the era of the so-called "Lost Generation" of American expatriate writers, although by then almost all their important documents, from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio in 1919 to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in 1925, had already been written, published, and received. The year 1926 was climactic, however, since that year was Hemingway's—it was the year of The Sun Also Rises and it was the last of the Moveable Feast years—and Hemingway, despite his subsequent repudiation of Gertrude Stein's "dirty, easy labels," has come to epitomize the writers of his era, the writers we still glibly label "the Lost Generation."
Henry Miller, in 1926, was still in America, though he was "of" America far less than any of his self-exiled compatriots; for with the exception of the very early years, when he was growing up in...
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SOURCE: "The Life in Fiction," in his The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett, Knopf, 1967, pp. 59-67.
[Hassan is an Egyptian-born American critic and educator who has written numerous books on modernist and post-modernist literature, including Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel (1961) and The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971). In the following excerpt, he analyzes the themes and technique of Tropic of Cancer, characterizing the novel as a profane yet lyrical paean to the chaos of raw experience.]
The trilogy that begins with Tropic of Cancer (1934) is still Miller's most compelling work. Cancer itself is primarily an act of obedience to flow; it shows neither recognition on the part of its hero nor conversion in his outlook. There is no "hero" and no central "point," and there is no form but the shape of disintegration, the rhythm of humility and rage endured by human flesh. If the book makes a plea, it is the eternal plea of the self: more life! We need to look at the book, as Anaïs Nin put it, "with the eyes of a Patagonian for whom all that is sacred and taboo in our world is meaningless."
It is the second year in Paris for the narrator; he has no money, no illusions. In the Villa Borghese, where he lives, everyone is alone and everyone is dead. This is the beginning. But how can...
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SOURCE: "The Volcano's Eruption," in his The Mind and Art of Henry Miller, Louisiana State University Press, 1967, pp. 85-109.
[In the following excerpt, Gordon discusses the imagery, style, and themes of Tropic of Cancer, arguing that the novel is a documentation of Miller's struggle for self-liberation.]
Tropic of Cancer, which came out in 1934, was Miller's first published full length work. He had written several "novels" before this, but those who have read them, including Miller, agree that they lack his essential quality, that they are derived and imitative. Although Tropic of Cancer is not part of the central work which Miller had planned in 1927, it is a kind of spontaneous bursting forth of feeling which had been bottled up for years. It is significant for several reasons, not the least being that it is still one of his most readable books. In Cancer Miller found and developed the role of hero-narrator which he has maintained throughout his writing career. This narrator, even when he is describing his own personal experiences and feelings, remains detached and relatively free of his environment. He is what Miller has always said of himself even as a child, at once a part of and totally independent of the life around him. He is gregarious and totally alone. He is Dostoievski's "underground man" who is filled with violence, but he lacks the self-doubts and tortured...
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SOURCE: "Cancer and Delirium," in his Americans in Paris, Doubleday, 1969, pp. 239-61.
[Wickes is a Belgian-born American critic and educator. In the following excerpt from his study of American expatriate writers of the 1920s and 30s, he discusses the crucial influence that the avant-garde, bohemian atmosphere of Paris had on Miller's artistic growth, and the personal tribulations and friendships which contributed to the genesis of Tropic of Cancer.]
On March 4, 1930, a slight, bald, middle-aged American arrived in Paris. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, he had the air of a college professor. Café waiters often took him for a German or a Scandinavian. "I lack that carefree, audacious air of the average American," he wrote in a letter at the time. "Even the Americans ignore me. They talk English at my elbow with that freedom which one employs only when he is certain his neighbor does not understand." Like so many Americans during the previous decade he had come to write, but his circumstances were altogether different. They came mostly from families which could afford to support their idleness. They usually sowed a very small crop of unpublishable literary oats and indulged in mild libertinage with their own kind along the Boulevard Montparnasse: got drunk in the American cafés for a season or two, mastered a few dozen French clichés, read a little, wrote a little, then went home to bourgeois...
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SOURCE: "Fragmentation and Confession in Tropic of Cancer," in her Form and Image in the Fiction of Henry Miller, Wayne State University Press, 1970, pp. 19-49.
[Nelson is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, she analyzes the structure of Tropic of Cancer using Jungian theories of unconscious, primitive archetypes and Erich Neumann's writings on ancient myths about the "primordial Great Mother."]
The demonic, obsessive quality of the erotic experience in Henry Miller's fiction has been sufficiently recognized, as have the Medusa characteristics of his women. This recognition, however, has not led his critics to examine the formal functions these darker aspects of the erotic have in his work. Kingsley Widmer in his remarks on Miller's obsession with the Dark Lady even asserts the contrary, arguing [in his Henry Miller, 1963] that this important theme does not provide a significant measure of concentration in individual works. Instead, in a chapter devoted to an analysis of Tropic of Cancer, he finds the disorder of Miller's world the only important ordering principle:
If the discrete fragments, as in the first two chapters of Tropic of Cancer, seem beyond order, then the very disorder, by imitative form, gives the quality of his "anecdotal life."
Probably the term...
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SOURCE: "Tropic of Cancer: The Journal of a 'Year' in the Surreal City," in his Henry Miller: The Major Writings, Schocken Books, 1986, pp. 75-103.
[In the following excerpt, Lewis provides an overview of the major themes of Tropic of Cancer.]
Henry Miller's first book, Tropic of Cancer, remains startling and unique. The radiant spirit and exuberant anger which Miller projected from the opening sentences of Cancer are as alive now as the day when they were released. Twenty-five years after its first publication in the United States, and half a century after Miller began his final revisions on the manuscript, Cancer is one of the best exemplars of Pound's definition of literature: News that stays news. Many writers have taken advantage of Miller's victories in the war against censorship and suppression, but Miller does not look like a pioneer who is interesting only as a precursor.
In an age when nothing is "outrageous" any more, Miller still has the power to out rage almost anyone writing today. As Mailer notes, "a revolution in style and consciousness" was taking place in Cancer, and like any real revolution, it has not been entirely absorbed. Tropic of Cancer is still threatening and elusive, perhaps more so than works by Miller's famous contemporaries. Miller, in Cancer, is still at least a little dangerous, still strangely...
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SOURCE: "Critical Warfare and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer," in Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, edited by Susan Sellers, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp. 23-43.
[Williams is an English educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she criticizes Kate Millett's influential attack on Henry Miller's misogyny as theoretically naive and ineffectual. Williams proposes a feminist reading which takes account of the sexual ambivalence implied by Miller's masochism and suggests that Miller embraced a desire for self-annihilation.]
Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller's polemic of antihumanism. It is an attempt to write 'The last book', an affirmation of extremity in the forms of transgression, disease and violence. For the Miller of Tropic of Cancer life is war, with Paris as its theatre. Men and women fight each other on the sexual battlefield of its pages, with a violence which makes the impossibility of impartial reading explicit: if we read the book at all, it is hard not to take sides. Want, sexual warfare, and a lack of sentiment about humanity interconnect in the cravings of the selves which populate Tropic of Cancer, and Miller's exploration of the savage and exploitative battles or contracts between men and women has made him an obvious target for feminists. The novel's grim opening movement—'toward the prison of death. There is no escape'—is a kind of perverse...
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Moore, Thomas H., ed. Bibliography of Henry Miller. Minneapolis, Minn.: Henry Miller Literary Society, 1961, 33 p.
Comprehensive primary and select secondary bibliography, with sections listing doctoral dissertations on Miller's works, recordings by Miller, and the locations of early first editions of his works.
Shifreen, Lawrence J. Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979, 477 p.
Extensive secondary bibliography.
Brown, J. D. Henry Miller. New York: Ungar Publishing Co., 1986, 147 p.
Critical biography which includes three chapters on Miller's formative years in Paris when he wrote Tropic of Cancer.
Dearborn, Mary V. The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, 368 p.
Contains several chapters focusing on Miller's life in Paris and his experience in writing Tropic of Cancer.
Ferguson, Robert, "1933–34: Tropic of Cancer and 'a Half-dozen Terrifying Words.'" In his Henry Miller: A Life, pp. 208-234. London: Hutchinson, 1991....
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