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Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of "Tropic of Cancer"

Frederick Turner
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Though branded as pornography for its graphic language and explicit sexuality, Henry Miller'sTropic of Canceris far more than a work that tested American censorship laws. In this riveting book, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary ofTropic of Cancer's initial U.S. release, Frederick Turner investigates Miller's unconventional novel, its tumultuous publishing history, and its unique place in American letters.

    Written in the slums of a foreign city by a man who was an utter literary failure in his homeland,Tropic of Cancerwas published in 1934 by a pornographer in Paris, but soon banned in the United States. Not until 1961, when Grove Press triumphed over the censors, did Miller's book appear in American bookstores. Turner argues thatTropic of Canceris "lawless, violent, colorful, misogynistic, anarchical, bigoted, and shaped by the same forces that shaped the nation." Further, the novel draws on more than two centuries of New World history, folklore, and popular culture in ways never attempted before. How Henry Miller, outcast and renegade, came to understand what literary dynamite he had within him, how he learned to sound his "war whoop" over the roofs of the world, is the subject of Turner's revelatory study.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16731-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)

    • “Fuck Everything!”
      (pp. 3-16)

      At the end of August 1931, Henry Miller posted a letter from Paris to his Brooklyn boyhood pal, Emil Schnellock. He wrote as if he were some explorer, poised to plunge alone and unarmed into a wilderness. “I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless—fuck everything!” he exclaimed.

      As a telegraphic précis of what would three years later becomeTropic of Cancer, the concluding six words of this brag are an astonishingly accurate prediction of the book Miller had somehow discovered he must write. When it was published in Paris in September 1934 by a man...

    • Slaughterhouse
      (pp. 17-20)

      If, as Miller claimed, America had become a slaughter-house, this condition had been centuries in the making, ever since, in fact, the Admiral of the Ocean Seas had first dropped anchor in 1492. Miller knew this, and his works are impressively studded with references to what began in that moment when Columbus’s anchor hissed downward through unsullied waters. Miller recognized and was deeply affected by the tragically short arc there was between discovery and destruction, and far from the New World in the years of his exile the manifold consequences of this came into ever sharper relief. The great missed,...

    • A Great Beast
      (pp. 21-27)

      It could hardly be expected that a people capable of so astounding and reckless a transformation of the national landscape would prove solid, law-loving citizens of the fledgling democratic republic that emerged out of the American Revolution, and indeed they did not. From the end of the war to the simultaneous deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on Independence Day, 1826, the new nation was severely tested by threatened secessions; the anarchical tendencies of backwoods settlers and local militias who marched under the tattered standards of the “Wild Yankees,” “Ely’s Rebels,” the “Paxton Boys,” the “Black Boys,” and the...

    • Folklore of the Conquest
      (pp. 28-40)

      Out of the conquest of the continent and the subsequent growth of towns and cities there arose a folklore that, if it was not entirely indigenous, was strongly flavored by the national experience and the national character shaped by that. This was a folklore that celebrated the New England Yankee, the backwoodsman, boatmen of the heartland rivers; practical jokers, mighty liars, petty criminals and outlaws of the Old Southwest; and finally, legendary figures arising out of the shadows and slums of the cities.

      The Yankee of folklore was essentially comic in nature, a dry-witted, slab-sided talker who, when he had...

    • Twain
      (pp. 41-56)

      The Deerslayer, American fiction’s first major character, is an oblique and somewhat sanitized reference to America’s dark and violent past. But very little else of this folkbased material entered the national literature’s mainstream until the career of Mark Twain, and none of it in all its hairy violence, its cruel humor, its profanity, sexuality, casual bigotry, and xenophobic contempt for anything foreign or smacking of culture (often enough regarded as synonymous). As for language, the American vernacular was confined to levels far beneath polite letters. It appeared in minstrel shows, in newspaper sketches, and in almanacs that mingled jokes and...

    • Just a Brooklyn Boy
      (pp. 57-66)

      For a writer who was so compulsively autobiographical and who for the last half century of his life saved or made copies of much of what he wrote, it is surprising how many facts of Miller’s life are either unknown or in dispute. We are not even certain of the original spelling of the family name—whether in the Old World the paternal line had it Mueller or Müller or Muller before Anglicizing it to Miller on coming to America.

      The major problem here is Miller himself, who was as compulsive a mythologizer as he was autobiographical, incessantly and even...

    • Beginning the Streets of Sorrow
      (pp. 67-73)

      These early years, Miller was to recall ever afterward, were ones in which he was having a grand time because he “really didn’t give a fuck about anything.” By this he apparently meant that he was yet young enough that no one expected him to have a goal in life. But the interesting thing here is that what Miller recalled of himself at about the age of eight was really what he said of himself near the end of his life when he was a living legend who could say that if his fame had permitted it, he would do...

    • The World of Sex
      (pp. 74-77)

      The sexual adventures began in a manner then common enough: he became one of a group of young men who found courage in numbers when they paid their occasional visits to the numerous whorehouses in Manhattan’s Herald Square area. His initiation into the mysterious world of sex thus came at a price—several actually. There was, of course, the entrance fee. And then there followed the almost inevitable doses of gonorrhea—though these were regarded as a badge of initiation into the secret order of full manhood and as such could be boasted about at the office, the bar, the...

    • Talk
      (pp. 78-83)

      He’d always been able to do it, but never consistently. There were often enough times when to his friends he seemed a tongue-tied, timid stammerer, awed by some stranger of supposedly greater learning or presence. But then, suddenly, something voltaic would surge through him and he would begin talking in torrents, long rushing streams of images, anecdotes, narrative fragments, wildly adventurous associations, startling and bizarre metaphors, lies so outrageous they strangely compelled a kind of belief. So now, in the fruit orchards of San Pedro and Chula Vista, working his generously proportioned mouth that appeared to have been constructed precisely...

    • Entering the Slaughterhouse
      (pp. 84-90)

      To Miller the tailor shop seemed somehow a particularly degrading form of work, as if he were being condemned to spend the rest of his days pressing out the farts the customers had left in their pants, as he so pungently put it. Nonetheless, he could see nothing else possible under the circumstances and knuckled under to his mother’s demands. His father had new business forms made up, reading “Henry Miller & Son,” which must have looked to that son like the official stamp and seal of his fate. No escape now, only the weary commute to the Bowery stop where...

    • Manhattan Monologist
      (pp. 91-94)

      Maybe he’d been born in the wrong place—Brooklyn, USA—at the wrong time, this soulless modern age of Progress? He asked his old friend Emil this question many times on his visits to Schnellock’s Fiftieth Street studio. He would come bounding up the stairs to the studio, filled with an electric vigor, clad in his studiously shabby army shirt and battered felt hat, brimming with new stories and observations gleaned from his voracious reading. But then, the question: was it merely his bad luck to be only an American instead of a European? Perhaps to find an answer by...

    • Cosmodemonic
      (pp. 95-98)

      While Miller continued his inevitably amateurish literary gropings, tensions in the household continued to intensify. The huge desk plumped down in the middle of the living room was a constant affront to Beatrice, who saw it as a symbol of Miller’s childish impracticality and his multiple failures as husband, father, and provider. In this context the fact that he was also proving a bust as a writer was almost beside the point. Early in 1920, though, matters changed when he talked his way into a well-paying job as an employment manager at Western Union.

      Beatrice could hardly believe it, and...

    • She
      (pp. 99-114)

      Within a year of that creative failure it was obvious that Miller had suffered a domestic one as well: his marriage was irretrievably wrecked. It had never been a harmonious one, and the arrival of the baby hadn’t improved matters. By now Beatrice was both deeply wounded by his brutal treatment of her and contemptuous of his literary strivings. As for Miller, he no longer made any effort to conceal his flagrant philandering and was rarely at home.

      One summer’s night, on the prowl around Times Square and with money in his pocket, he wandered into a taxidance hall, danced...

    • Exile
      (pp. 115-118)

      June couldn’t have been happy about the manuscript in whatever version she saw it. But it is possible that her narcissism combined with her drug use to keep her in some sort of touch with her conviction that Val could yet write the great book about her even ifLovely Lesbianswasn’t it. In any case, she was straight in her mind about one thing: Val had to go. She couldn’t operate with him around the apartment all day. (She might have wanted to use it for business purposes.) And she might also have thought that Miller really could profit...


    • Where the Writers Went
      (pp. 121-130)

      He was thirty-eight and must have felt twice that, dragging the heavy baggage of his past to a shabby hotel on the Left Bank: the suits the Jewish tailors had cut in his father’s shop; his copy ofLeaves of Grassby another Brooklyn guy who’d gotten a late start; and the manuscripts of his two unpublished novels which he couldn’t bear to leave behind but which he must have known made poor bona fides for his literary pretensions.

      No one in the great city was expecting him. He’d met a few people there back in ’28 with June, but...

    • The Avant-Garde
      (pp. 131-136)

      True, he could not yet bring himself to ditchMolochor the manuscript he was now callingCrazy Cock, and in fact he continued to slash and hack intermittently at the latter for more than a year before finally admitting to himself that it was the “vilest crap that ever was.” But inUn Chien Andalouhe had both literally and figuratively seen something new, and in his subsequent investigations of Dada and its militant successor, Surrealism, he discovered that here in France there existed artists who had rebelled against all received esthetic conventions to create works that were vital,...

    • Hunger
      (pp. 137-141)

      So he was alone as far as artistic contacts were concerned. Instead he began to hang out a bit with streetwalkers of the seedier sort, the ones with rundown heels and rents in their stockings and bad teeth. He began taking notes on them, including dialogue. At first it may not have been evident to him that this could be literary material. What American writer of stature, after all, had written about whores, except Stephen Crane? And even there the writer hadn’t really gotten close to how they worked and lived. At the outset, then, it may well have seemed...

    • June
      (pp. 142-144)

      Then June arrived on the first of her four disastrous visits. This was in September. He had warned her not to come without money, telling her (and Emil as well) that he couldn’t possibly support the two of them. But she cabled some money and announced that she herself would soon follow. Clownishly, he missed her at the train station but then happened upon her at a café on Montparnasse, nonchalantly sipping a Pernod: June, with her incessant demands, her impossible expectations, her slovenly habits and maddening inconsistencies: here at last she was, grasping Val to her and breathily telling...

    • An Apache
      (pp. 145-156)

      With June gone Miller might have moved back in with Perlès, but for some reason he didn’t. Instead he moved in with an American, Richard Osborn. Osborn was a Yale Law School graduate working in a Paris bank. He was also an aspiring writer living a double life, his days soberly spent at the bank and his nights consumed with barhopping and chasing women in Montparnasse. Eventually this killing routine would catch up with him, but for now he was managing it, though occasionally he’d show up at the bank red of eye and with a rumpled suit. When he...

    • Villa Seurat
      (pp. 157-173)

      The American writer Walter Lowenfels had been around Miller enough by early 1931 to be impressed by his cheerful resiliency, his belief in himself despite his shabby circumstances, his barren prospects. He mentioned Miller to Michael Fraenkel, telling the philosopher and book dealer that Miller might be an interesting example of the modern postmortem man, someone who had contrived a strategy for living creatively within the gigantic mausoleum both Lowenfels and Fraenkel believed Western civilization had become. Fraenkel was intrigued enough to invite Miller to his flat for an inspection, and Miller ended up staying until the middle of the...

    • What She Gave
      (pp. 174-180)

      When in the 1960s the feminist movement in America expanded its consciousness beyond the national borders to embrace pioneering figures of other cultures, it was almost inevitable that Anaïs Nin would be “discovered” and perhaps exalted beyond even what she might have wished to claim for herself. But like the photographer-journalist Lee Miller, who began as the gorgeous mascot of the Paris Surrealists but emerged as an artist fully as interesting as many of them, Nin was for some decades known more as Henry Miller’s sex kitten than as a formidable literary talent herself. Clearly, she would never for a...

    • 1934
      (pp. 181-185)

      In this year, the self-proclaimed heavyweight champion of American letters, Ernest Hemingway, was putting the finishing touches on a short story collection,Winner Take Nothing. It contained some of Hemingway’s most enduring work—“The Gambler, The Nun, and the Radio,” “The Light of the World,” and especially “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Still, the already legendary tough guy found himself having to make certain unhappy concessions to what was permissible in mainstream American publishing. In the manuscript version of “The Light of the World,” for example, a teenager named Tom says to a bartender who is giving him some trouble, “...

    • Form
      (pp. 186-196)

      Emil Schnellock’s accordion-like valise that Miller had invoked in his letter of spring 1932 was only a metaphor of the moment for him as he tried to explain to himself what he was trying to do inTropic of Cancer:throwingeverythinginto it in the effort to get down on paper for once the fantastic essence of living—“caviar, rain drops, axle grease, vermicelli, liverwurst,” as he eventually was to put it in the novel itself. This wasn’t to be alife, which to him evidently had a finished quality to the very sound of it, as if it...

    • The Grounds of Great Offense
      (pp. 197-205)

      This is to be sure a great, bloody sprawl of a book, as Miller himself surely knew, even after three extensive rewrites. When in these pages he imagines a bewildered reader of Whitman exclaiming, “Holy Mother of God, what does this crap mean?” he might well have been talking aboutTropic of Cancer.

      He knew that it was an assault on received notions of structure and plot, an assault on the taste, the patience, and the expectations of even the most adventurous of readers. But then, he’d never wanted it to be a novel, nor even a book really. (In...

    • A New World
      (pp. 206-214)

      At the very outset ofTropic of Cancerthe narrator says that he has been sent to Paris “for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.” Placed thus, the remark seems a trifle obscure, but then, in these opening pages there are more than enough obscurities—whoarethese people and why are we being told these things about them?—so that it does not seem to merit special attention. By the book’s last pages, though, it has acquired a resonance, for the narrator’s journey, which is in a real sense Henry Miller’s own, is just this...

    • Coda
      (pp. 215-218)

      The writing ofTropic of Cancerprobably gave Henry Miller the most intense artistic satisfaction of his life because it vindicated him in his conviction of who he was. Jack Kahane’s publication of it, however, was something of an anticlimax for him, and maybe at that moment Anaïs Nin cared more about the book than its author did. By this point Miller was already furiously at work onTropic of Capricorn, which was to be the story of Henry and June and thus was the return of the original muse. The writing of it doubtless contributed to the growing distance...

  5. Notes
    (pp. 219-226)
  6. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 227-230)
  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 231-231)
  8. Index
    (pp. 232-244)