Tropic of Cancer

by Henry Miller

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

Henry Miller’s autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer describes the experiences of a down and out American writer (also named Henry Miller) in Paris. After it was published by Obelisk Press in Paris in 1934, its vigorous writing secured for it an underground reputation among readers and critics able to visit France. However, the book’s sexual content made its importation into the United States illegal. After U.S. Customs officials confiscated a copy the year of its publication, it was declared obscene in a federal district court.

In 1940 a pirated edition of Tropic of Cancer appeared in New York; however, it was not openly published in the United States until Grove Press issued it in 1961. Grove anticipated legal complications when it published the book; however, the process of legally defending it proved to be extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming. Grove was forced into court in state after state, and won decisively only in 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the book not obscene.

In Tropic of Cancer Miller had declared himself “the happiest man alive.” He had defended his book as an expression of a life lived openly and honestly. Thus the Supreme Court’s decision represented not only a legal victory for Miller and Grove Press, but also a measure of personal vindication.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

Tropic of Cancer is neither a novel nor a fictional autobiography in the usual sense. Henry Miller rejects telling the story of his life in traditional chronological order. Such a time sequence, he suggests, does not offer a true imitation of the rhythm of life. Nevertheless, Tropic of Cancer, as the first book of his multi-volume autobiography, focuses on the events of his life among the avant-garde literary expatriates in the early 1930’s in Paris and on a brief appointment as a lycée instructor in Dijon. His next book about his life, Tropic of Capricorn (1939), concentrates on New York in the early 1920’s; Black Spring (1936) is devoted to his boyhood in Brooklyn; and the three volumes of The Rosy Crucifixion (Sexus, 1949; Plexus, 1953; Nexus, 1960) return to his life in the 1920’s in New York City.

Tropic of Cancer was Miller’s first major work and continues to be his best-known novel. Much of his thinking is based on the views of his literary mentors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and especially Walt Whitman, whose poem Leaves of Grass (1855) encourages a spirit of anarchy and self-reliance seen in much of Miller’s best writings. With such a philosophical and intellectual basis, Miller used his unique literary voice—“write the way you talk!”—to “sing,” as he said, to his readers, even if occasionally he might sing his conscious and subconscious discourse off key.

Henry Miller, as narrator, dedicates his song-story to the character of Tania, who plays a minor role otherwise. Fragmentary notes, asides, digressions, occasional euphoric outbursts, discursive fulminations, and intermittent normal descriptive prose make up the early portions of the book. A menagerie of bizarre characters populate the periphery of the artistic community of Paris at a time when the glamour of the 1920’s no longer exists. There are Tania and her husband Sylvester, Carl and Paula, Cronstadt and Boris, Moldorf, Van Norden, Fillmore, numerous prostitutes, and a host of characters representing the dregs of society. Although each of the characters is based on an acquaintance of Miller’s, it is not necessary to know their true identity to understand his story.

The chain of events that gradually portrays the making of the artist—the author of the novel—includes a monotonous succession of women, each madly attracted to the narrator. This is the portion of the book that led censors to attempt banning the novel. Each episode, whether an amatory escapade, an encounter with an eccentric, a misbegotten attempt to earn money as a teacher, or a return to Puritan America with his friend Fillmore, follows the teller of these tales on his pilgrimage toward self-liberation and discovery.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851

The unnamed narrator, the “I” of the novel, is living at the Villa Borghese with his pal, Boris, during the fall of his second year in Paris. He has no money, no resources, no hopes, and yet is the happiest man alive. A year before he only thought he was an artist; now he is one. All literature has fallen from him, and the book he has written—and that the reader is reading—is not a book; it is a libel, a slander, a defamation of character. The book is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, and a kick in the pants of God. The narrator promises to sing for his readers—a bit off-key perhaps, but sing nevertheless. The book will be that song.

The villa is about to be rented, and the narrator has to find new lodgings; he begins the narrative as he searches for another place to live in Paris and tries to survive without money. The story follows his wanderings in search of work, friendship, art, and love (both emotional and carnal) as well as lodging and food. The narrator also introduces the reader to an endless list of friends, including Tania, to whom he is singing in the novel; Borowski; Van Norden; the narrator’s wife, Mona, who never arrives from home; Boris; Moldorf, who is word-drunk; and finally Irene, who, like Tania, demands that he write fat letters to her. The narrator prowls around Paris, intoxicated by the streets, cafés, and squares—a compendium of Paris place-names and his dreams. Every day he returns to the American Express office on the Place du Opéra to see if he has received letters from home or money from Mona. He remembers his life back in the United States, and the cultural baggage of his past and the freedom he feels in the present merge in his mind and his art.

He concocts a scheme to get food by writing to various acquaintances to beg a meal once a week with each of them. He plans other scams as well. He writes to various women and begs money from them. He scrutinizes his love life and the sexual exploits of his friends. He gets a job proofreading for the Paris edition of an American newspaper published for expatriates and travelers. He works on his book, the book the reader is now reading. Mona writes that she is coming to join him in Paris, and he worries about how his wife will react to his bohemian style of living. Will her presence retard his writing, destroy his freedom to create? He sits in cafés day after day, talking endlessly of art and writing and life.

He meets Carl and Marlowe, neurasthenic American expatriates defeated by their life of exile. He discovers how stifling are the various households he visits. His sense of himself as an artist solidifies amid his wanderings among his friends. He is generous to all the disadvantaged persons he meets, offering them money when he has it, a room when one is available, and food even when he has little himself. Music enthralls him. People become the subject for his musings and the grist for his fiction. The nostalgia that dogs his memories of Mona interrupts his present pleasure with Tania. As time goes on, he becomes the artist/hero of his own creation.

In all of his peregrinations through the netherworld of Paris, he searches for a community, one that can sustain his needs as a man and as an artist. He is constantly frustrated but never disappointed. He travels from Paris to Dijon, a trip that is in itself unsuccessful, but he turns his effort into more material for his thoughts and for his work. At the end of the year, he witnesses the expatriate Fillmore’s return to America, and he realizes his own resilience and survival as an artist. Walking back from the railroad station with the cash Fillmore has left for Ginette sagging in his pockets, the narrator takes a cab to the Bois, past the Arc de Triomphe, to the Seine, where he gets out and starts walking toward the Port de Sèvres. Once again free from his entanglements, he realizes that he now has enough money to return to America. He has a vision of New York in the snow, and he wonders what has happened to his wife.

A great peace settles around him as he realizes that he does not want to return—not just yet, anyway. The lazy river, the soil so saturated by history that it cannot be detached from its human background, gives him a golden peace that produces in him the feeling of being on the top of a high mountain. He thinks about how strange humans are, so negligible at a distance and at the same time, close up, so ugly and malicious. They need to be surrounded by sufficient space, space more than time. The river flows through him, the hills gently girdle it about; its course is fixed.

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