Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Tropic of Cancer is without doubt Henry Miller’s most famous book. The work is also one of the most notorious novels of the twentieth century and occupies a central place in the legal battle against censorship. Banned from almost the moment it was printed in Paris in 1934, it was not legally available in the United States until Grove Press rather courageously challenged U.S. obscenity laws by openly publishing it in 1961. The book was immediately and widely condemned and suppressed. Grove Press went to court to challenge the statutes used to outlaw the book, and after a protracted and celebrated legal case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that the novel was not obscene. Although similar cases involving D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) had been brought before the U.S. courts in celebrated attempts to overturn the country’s obscenity statutes, it was the Tropic of Cancer litigation that finally altered the restrictions on what could be published in the United States.

Miller’s first published novel is an episodic tale in fifteen loosely connected sections that reflect the author’s indebtedness to, among others, Walt Whitman, another American writer who invented a personal and encyclopedic style. The novel has been called the journal of a “year” in a surreal city and an “eccentric antibook” full of ruminations, anecdotes, rhapsodies, self-promotion, caricatures, and burlesques about art and sex and culture. In any case, Tropic of Cancer is a book of large appetites, great ideas, and generous feelings.

Although Tropic of Cancer is fiction, it is nevertheless highly autobiographical. Miller has been credited with largely inventing this cross-genre, a fictional type that has become increasingly important as a...

(The entire section is 757 words.)