Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Paris. French capital city to which the narrator has moved with the hope of becoming a writer. Tropic of Cancer is a largely autobiographical account of Henry Miller’s life and experiences in the south-central Parisian quarter of Montparnasse, from his arrival early in 1930 through 1932. Although Miller appears as himself, or at least a version of himself, his wife June is portrayed as Mona and his good friend Alfred Perlès as Carl. Colorful journalist Wambly Bald becomes the obsessive womanizer Van Norden. As the novel’s narrator, Miller is not consistent in his treatment of Paris; he portrays it from different viewpoints as his mood changes and as his acceptance of circumstances grows. Initially, he presents Paris as a symbol of everything he finds wrong with life-denying modern civilization: a “huge organism diseased in every part.” Some neighborhoods he describes as literal garbage heaps. Later, in the spring sun, the city looks different, and the narrator grows more content.
As a down-and-out writer, the narrator often has no place to stay; at such times, the streets of Paris become his refuge. Popular sidewalk cafés such as the Dôme, the Rotonde, and the Coupole provide him with vantage points from which he observes the city’s fascinating street life, hoping for the appearance of an acquaintance who may treat him to a drink or a meal.
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Miller's "autobiographical romances" or "auto-novels" must be seen as separate chapters in a multivolume "Book" of his life. The key to his method is Emerson's dictum that novels would give way to biography, which Miller quotes as an epigraph in Tropic of Cancer. Accordingly, his major writing might be divided into a quartet including Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring (1938), The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957) in which he is essentially an observer or commentator, and a triad including Tropic of Capricorn (1939), Sexus (1949), and Nexus (I960), in which he is an actor involved in the creation of his artistic consciousness. Tropic of Cancer is the first book in this sequence, and it displays the artist/hero as fully formed, confident of his power and judgment, and the voice in which he speaks is a product of this certainty. Its tone is striking, singular, and somewhat daunting in regard to people and society, sensitive and enraptured about art and nature.
The book itself is not exactly a novel; it is more like a journal of a year in a surreal city, a packet of sketches, a rough collection of essays, an assemblage of anecdotes and poems. It has fifteen sections, and except for a brief excursion to Dijon near the conclusion, it is set entirely in Paris, or in the narrator's mind. The span of time covered is rather elastic and conventional chronology is...
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Henry Miller's work is marked by his commitment to the principles of individual liberty and freedom of expression. Because his emphasis is on an erotic expression of these principles, his very strong feelings about the necessity to resist authoritarian social structures has often been misunderstood, but in Tropic of Cancer, Miller's anger at a society that has dehumanized its inhabitants flares with radiant light. Although the book is set in Paris, Miller's narrator finds himself amid a group of American and British protobeatniks and European demi-bohemians who have been reduced to groping, desperate samples of human detritus. They have brought their native neuroses with them and the fabled City of Light cannot save them.
Miller's narrator is able to survive because he is responsive to the great art available for inspiration throughout the city and because he is still in touch with the beauty and purity of the natural world, represented here by the Seine river. He is unable to make a connection with a community of supportive fellow artists, but his adventures show him alternately raging at the effects of a destructive, inhuman social system and beginning to envision a place (a search which informs all of his writing) where a convergence of nature's beauty, artistic creativity, harmonious human relationships and sensory excitement might be the features of an ideal social landscape.
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Like Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), Tropic of Cancer does not really have any precedents in American literature. The travel journal and the picaresque early novel, might be vague ancestors and some of the tales of Boccaccio or Chaucer are not too distant relations. Specific features of Miller's work do have precedents, like the lists which resemble those of Rabelais, or the catalogues found in Emerson. Ideas from Andre Breton's surrealist manifesto are present, and some of Rimbaud's symboliste aesthetique might be detected, but ultimately, this book is a mutant and basically, it belongs to a category of one.
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Because Tropic of Cancer is a part of a multibook sequence, Miller purposely withholds some very important elements of his art from the narrative. To balance the bleak landscape of Tropic of Cancer, Miller reaches back to a Utopian vision of the past in descriptions of his early childhood in Black Spring (1938), and then sets both the Attic landscape of Greece ("land of light") and the rugged terrain of Big Sur as correctives from the natural world in The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), and Big Sur and the Oranges of Weronymus Bosch (1957). In addition, the full scale of the social disaster which Tropic of Cancer delineates is measured by the rapid decline of the men and women Miller describes from Black Spring to Tropic of Cancer, and by the vision of another "Paris" which Miller offers in some of the chapters of Black Spring, Perhaps most important, the complex nature of his relationship with women is reduced to debased sensuality in Tropic of Cancer because Miller was not ready to explore it more fully. The record of his struggles with his ego impulses, sensory desires and romantic dreams is the subject of the books in the triad, and the reasons behind choices he made in writing Tropic of Cancer become more clear from the perspective of that account.
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The rights to film Tropic of Cancer were bought by producer Joseph E. Levine in 1962 and the book was made into a film by Joseph Strick in 1965, with Rip Torn playing the character who is ostensibly "Henry Miller" and Ellen Burstyn in the role of his wife June. The film is a botch, with the normally excellent Torn playing "Miller" as a crazed satyr with no artistic sensibility. As Paulene Kael remarked, it is "so much less than the book that it almost seems deliberately intended to reduce Miller ... to pipsqueak size." One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Miller had not turned down Stanley Kubrick's offers in 1958 — "holding out for the day when we really have freedom of expression."
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Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Hutchison, E. R. “Tropic of Cancer” on Trial: A Case History of Censorship. New York: Grove Press, 1968. This is the detailed history and analysis of the now infamous obscenity trial.
Martin, Jay. Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1978. Of all the biographical reminiscences of Miller’s life, this is still the most comprehensive.
Nelson, Jane. Form and Image in the Fiction of Henry Miller. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970. In her chapter on Tropic of Cancer, Nelson uses a correlation between Mythology and psychology to analyze the novel.
Widmer, Kingsley. Henry Miller. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Widmer’s short biographical/ critical monograph provides a good overview of both Miller’s life and work.
Williams, Linda R. “Critical Warfare and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.” In Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, edited by Susan Sellers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. This article traces the debate over various feminist readings of the exploitative sexuality of Tropic of Cancer.
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