Tropic of Cancer Introduction
In A Nutshell
Tropic of Cancer is pretty much soft porn.
Okay, do we have your attention?
Let's take a quick look at the plot: we've got a wayward American writer living it up in Paris in the 1930s. He basically spends all his time having sex with prostitutes, scrounging for meals, and hammering out the occasional chapter. Once you work out that the main plot is pretty basic, you'll be able to appreciate that most of what you are reading are just his opinions, ideas, and flights of fancy.
As you might expect, this book opened up a huge can of cultural and political worms. Even though it was published in 1934, Tropic of Cancer kind of predicted the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 70s. If the book hadn't challenged (and won against) obscenity laws in the United States and Britain, the porn industry would probably not have come along as soon as it did. And forget Fifty Shades of Grey—you have Henry Miller to thank for that fine genre of literature. (Yes, the movie version made in 1970 received an X rating).
But in case you're not into soft porn, let's talk about Walt Whitman. Yep, Walt. At the beginning of Tropic of Cancer, Miller announces his intentions:
This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty […] what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key, perhaps, but I will sing [….] This then is a song. I am singing.
Basically, Miller loves art but hates all of the pretentions of artists. And he's not trying to hide it.
This proclamation in particular is a straight riff on Walt Whitman. Miller saw the 19th-century American poet as a huge inspiration in terms of living life on your own terms and embracing all sorts of random people and experiences. He also loved Whitman for thinking that life is more important than art or the intellect. Like Miller, he was an anti-snob. Lice and all.
In fact, to Miller, Whitman was the best thing about America. He was more American than America itself: "In Whitman the whole American scene comes to life, her past and her future, her birth and her death. Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said" (13.2).
And just like Whitman, Miller endures. Tropic of Cancer almost always makes that list of the 100 best American books of all time. Prudes hate the book, and (most) literary writers love it.
Now it's your turn to be the judge.
Why Should I Care?
Okay, we're just going to jump straight into it. A lot of people think Henry Miller is a pornographer, an author of "dirty books," and a "gangster author" (that's our fave). Others think he's one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century. Hmmm.
So is Tropic of Cancer a work of genius or is Miller a fraud and a hack—not to mention a woman-hating pig? Wherever you stand, we can all agree that Tropic of Cancer was one of the biggest literary scandals of the 20th century. And this was before scandals were a daily event.
Here's just some of the craziness that went down:
- Four years after the book's initial publication in Paris in 1934, Tropic of Cancer was banned by the United States government. Opponents accused Miller of describing his sexual exploits too explicitly and said that the book was sexually immoral. The government was so offended that they had the ban include all of Miller's subsequent works. The ban wasn't lifted until 1961, when Elmer Gertz, an America lawyer and civil rights activist, won this high-profile case.
- But wait! The anti-Miller people just wouldn't give it up. Tropic of Cancer was still officially labeled "obscene," and Chicago police intimidated bookstores that carried the book. Some book vendors selling the novel in the U.S. were even arrested.
- Grove Press, the book's publisher, was ensnared in about 60 lawsuits in 1961 and even got the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) involved. That's hardcore. Not until 1964 did the Supreme Court decision declare that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene.
These days, Tropic of Cancer is considered a classic. Just don't expect to find it on the syllabus for a Feminist Lit class.