Tropic of Cancer Summary
by Henry Miller

Start Your Free Trial


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Download Tropic of Cancer Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1,506 words.)