Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
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 literary model in contemporary writing. Miller drew heavily on his real-life experiences while living in Paris during the early years of the 1930’s to provide him with the raw material for the novel. He mixes detailed examination of both individuals and locale—the environs of Paris are especially important to the flavor and structure of the novel—with a narrative commentary that encompasses a wide range of observations on art and writing. The novel deftly combines these personal reactions with objective descriptions to create a narrative of often hypnotic power.
The book’s graphic sexual content—which Miller deliberately used to provoke the reactions that raised all of the legal problems and attracted great public attention—constitutes only a minor portion of the text and, taken in context, proves to be only one of the shocking techniques Miller employs in his assault on the literary establishment. As he states in the opening pages of the novel, he wants his writing to be a “libel, slander, defamation of character”—in short, a prolonged insult to Art and an attack on the conventional notions of what constitutes a novel. This insult has to do as much perhaps with the form of the writing as it does with its subject matter or its “obscene” language. The novel, which is not a novel in the usual sense of the term, is revolutionary, but only partially because of its widely recognized employment of graphic sexuality.
Although much of contemporary cultural and literary criticism has positioned Miller as an important force in the development of literary modernism, modern feminists still largely have focused on the novel’s and Miller’s obsessive sexism. The lively debate produced by such feminist critiques has generated some provocative readings of the novel, and not all of them have been totally negative: Kate Millet, for example, has defended at least some of Miller’s sexual excesses in the novel. Feminist criticism has raised a number of legitimate concerns about Miller’s depiction of women in his fiction, which has exposed the patriarchal bias, both individual and cultural, of the novel. It is worth noting, however, that similar charges have been lodged against numerous other works of fiction of the same period. What has become clear from the debate over Tropic of Cancer is that the novel, more than seventy-five years after it was published, is still controversial and capable of stimulating debate about the nature and form of literary art. Miller’s “kick in the seat of the pants” remains disturbing today and at times even enrages those who think and write about the place of literature in Western culture. Miller’s initial intent to upset conventional notions of the nature of the novel and to extend the boundaries of what fiction legitimately can take for its subject matter remains viable.
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