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.
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...
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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...
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