Miller’s Stirs Controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Henry Miller’s autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer, which was based on his first two years as an expatriate in Paris, created a sensation and began a new phase in American literature.

Summary of Event

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. [kw]Miller’s Tropic of Cancer Stirs Controversy (Sept. 1, 1934)[Millers Tropic of Cancer Stirs Controversy (Sept. 1, 1934)] [kw]Tropic of Cancer Stirs Controversy, Miller’s (Sept. 1, 1934) Tropic of Cancer (Miller, H.) [g]France;Sept. 1, 1934: Miller’s Tropic of Cancer Stirs Controversy[08700] [c]Literature;Sept. 1, 1934: Miller’s Tropic of Cancer Stirs Controversy[08700] Miller, Henry Nin, Anaïs Kahane, Jack Fraenkel, Michael Smith, June Edith

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

Thus begins Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller’s opus of self-liberation and rebirth. Tropic of Cancer records Miller’s unflinching look at himself as he struggled to survive amid the bohemian milieu of Paris in the early 1930’s. It is the record of an odyssey of the spirit in which Miller experiences the hard, essential truth of what it means to be truly alive and open to the moment as it unfolds. By transforming the chaos of his struggle into art, he fashioned a document that captures the turbulent spontaneity of existence.

Henry Miller was born the son of lower-middle-class parents in the Yorkville section of New York City on December 26, 1891. In 1892, Miller’s family moved to Brooklyn, where Miller learned to play the piano and developed a love for the romantic adventure stories of Knut Hamsun and the poetry of Walt Whitman. In 1909, Miller attended the City College of New York, but he left after two months. He spent the next several years traveling through the Southwest and working odd jobs. When he returned to New York City, he assisted his father in the family tailor shop. In 1917, he married Beatrice Wickens, a piano teacher, and they had a daughter, Barbara. In 1920, after a succession of dreary jobs, he was hired as employment manager for the Western Union Telegraph Company in Manhattan. In 1924, Miller divorced his wife and married a Broadway taxi dancer, June Edith Smith, whom he had met during his late-night wanderings in the city. Their relationship was tumultuous, and Smith’s promiscuity was destructive for Miller. Smith, however, encouraged Miller’s aspirations to become a writer, and with her support, Miller quit his job to write full time.

His early efforts met with little success, and in 1928, Miller and Smith left for Europe for a brief stay. Running low on funds, they returned to the United States after eight months. In 1930, with Smith’s urging and promises of financial support, he returned alone and settled in Paris. Now that they were separated, their marriage fell apart under the weight of Smith’s emotional instability, and four years later, Smith obtained a Mexican divorce. In Paris, Miller was free from the demands of American society, but he also faced new problems. Miller was in a strange country where he had no friends, little money, and no prospects. He did not even speak the language. After arriving in Paris in 1930, Miller moved to a cheap hotel on the rue Bonaparte. From there, he began wandering the streets of Paris, taking notes and keeping a daily record of his life, including the things he saw and the people he met. He would relate these adventures in long letters to his friends in the United States, and many of these letters were later included in Tropic of Cancer. His adventures with prostitutes and the characters he met on the street and in cafés became the fabric of his book.

When Miller’s money ran out, he was forced to panhandle and find lodging wherever he could. He had, in reality, become homeless, and he was dependent on fate and others’ charity. He did not become dejected, however. Instead, by using these deprivations and desperate situations as the raw material for his letters, he turned his destitution into a testament to the human spirit.

Miller met a number of writers, artists, and intellectuals in Paris who befriended him. After months of living hand to mouth, he landed a job as a proofreader for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. While there, he met Michael Fraenkel, a writer and occasional publisher who let Miller move in with him. While living with Fraenkel, Miller began to work on Tropic of Cancer. Fraenkel, a man given to abstract debates about death, is portrayed in the novel as Boris, a character frozen by philosophical introspection. Miller, on the other hand, is the hero who opens himself to the richness and sensuality of life in Paris.

Although he was still very much in love with Smith, who was back in New York, Miller met and began an intimate relationship with the French writer Anaïs Nin. When they met, they were immediately drawn to one another, and although Nin lived outside Paris with her husband, Miller frequently visited her. During 1931 and 1932, they exchanged a voluminous correspondence. At one point, when Miller was depressed over his estrangement from Smith, Nin arranged for him to teach English at a preparatory school in Dijon. The position paid little, and Dijon was a depressingly provincial town that added to Miller’s sense of isolation. He left after two months. Back in Paris in the summer of 1932, he completed work on the manuscript of Tropic of Cancer.

An American literary agent in Paris read Tropic of Cancer, liked it, and gave it to English expatriate Jack Kahane, who owned the Obelisk Press. Kahane read the novel and was so impressed that he offered Miller a contract. The raw, uninhibited style Miller used in the Tropic of Cancer contained obscene language and graphic accounts of sex. Although the Obelisk Press had a reputation for publishing risqué novels, Kahane stalled publication because of fears of French censorship laws. Kahane persuaded Miller to write another, more “serious” book, one that would give his work an air of respectability. Although Miller attempted a scholarly study of D. H. Lawrence, he failed to produce a publishable book. Finally, after nearly two years of delays, Anaïs Nin came to the rescue with six hundred dollars to underwrite the publication of Tropic of Cancer with the Obelisk Press. Miller’s turbulent and euphoric autobiographical novel went to press on September 1, 1934.

Significance

Miller began receiving praise for Tropic of Cancer soon after its publication. Among the writers and artists who applauded the novel were Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Duchamp, and Blaise Cendrars. As his reputation grew, Miller became the subject of a great deal of interest. Other publishers, such as Alfred A. Knopf in New York and Faber & Faber in London, expressed interest in Miller’s work but did not make definite offers. After completing Tropic of Cancer, Miller had begun his second autobiographical novel, Tropic of Capricorn (1939), Tropic of Capricorn (Miller, H.) which was about his life in New York City and his exploration of sexuality during a period of personal frustration and upheaval. In 1939, that work also was published by the Obelisk Press.

Another work that Miller had begun writing in 1933 was a surrealistic self-portrait filled with fragments of letters, dreams, and reminiscences. Finally given the title Black Spring, Black Spring (Miller, H.) it was published in Paris in 1936. Meanwhile, Miller’s life had begun to settle somewhat. While in Paris, he wrote steadily and worked on various publishing projects, but with the outbreak of war in Europe and the threat of invasion by the Germans, Miller decided to leave his Paris home for good. After nearly ten years, his time in France was drawing to an end. In 1939, he sailed for Greece at the urging of his friend Lawrence Durrell. After arriving in Corfu, he stayed with the Durrells and then traveled around Greece. His adventures were later published as The Colossus of Maroussi: Or, The Spirit of Greece (1941), Colossus of Maroussi, The (Miller, H.) a kind of spiritual travelogue praised as one of his best books.

In 1940, Miller left Greece for New York. Although his books had continued to sell briskly in Paris, he was unable to obtain royalties owed him, and when he arrived back in the United States he was almost as broke as when he had left ten years earlier. Miller eventually moved to California and settled in Big Sur, where he became the focal point in a growing artists’ colony. There he worked on The Rosy Crucifixion: Sexus (1949, 2 volumes), Plexus (1953, 2 volumes), and Nexus (1960), the story of his ill-fated relationship with June Smith.

All through the 1930’s, Tropic of Cancer continued to sell in Paris, although it was not until the German occupation of the 1940’s that sales dramatically increased. By the war’s end, Miller’s accumulated royalties from French sales of Tropic of Cancer totaled some forty thousand dollars. By 1947, he was owed ten times that amount. Because of postwar restrictions and rapid devaluation of the franc, however, he was unable to collect his earnings. Meanwhile, Miller’s Paris publisher faced other problems. In 1946, French authorities brought charges against the owners of the Obelisk Press and managed to convict them of distributing pornographic materials. Fortunately, several famous and influential French writers, including Albert Camus, Paul Éluard, and Jean-Paul Sartre, came to the book’s defense, and the verdict was overturned. Meanwhile, Tropic of Cancer had still not been published in the United States.

For years, Tropic of Cancer and The Rosy Crucifixion were deemed obscene and were banned from publication in the United States. In 1961, however, Grove Press brought out an American edition of Tropic of Cancer. Sales of the book were phenomenal, and Miller became an overnight celebrity. The publication was met with controversy, however, and numerous attempts were made to have the book banned. Finally, in 1963, a U.S. Supreme Court decision ended censorship of Miller’s books.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—such controversy, Tropic of Cancer’s effect on American literature was significant. The unrestrained language and lack of literary pretenses in Miller’s autobiographical novel influenced such writers as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer. Miller’s work explored the meaning of what it was to be alive in a civilization that was being torn apart by forces it had unleashed on itself, one in which dehumanizing technology, the forced conformity of the masses, poverty, and war all threatened to destroy the individual’s spirit and imagination. Tropic of Cancer recorded Miller’s fight to save his own soul, and it is a work that reverberates with a desperate energy and a liberating vision. Tropic of Cancer (Miller, H.)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brassaï. Henry Miller, Happy Rock. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Rerelease of Brassaï’s reflections on his friendship with Miller. Includes valuable advice for young writers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dearborn, Mary V. The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. A valuable biography that raises questions about the lack of serious academic criticism of Miller’s work. Successfully depicts the man and all of his contradictions. Includes numerous photographs and detailed notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Decker, James M. Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity. New York: Routledge, 2005. Studies Miller’s frequent transitions between realism and an interest in the fantastic. Analyzes the influences of James Joyce, Walt Whitman, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durrell, Lawrence. Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80. Edited by Ian S. MacNiven. London: Faber & Faber, 1988. A collection of letters that nearly doubles the published correspondence between the two writers. The letters illustrate and confirm the affection between them and the vitality of their relationship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, William A. The Mind and Art of Henry Miller. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967. The first serious, full-length study of Henry Miller as an artist. Insightful and objective. Examines Miller’s principal themes and studies his growth toward self-liberation through his writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Leon. Henry Miller: The Major Writings. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. An examination of Miller scholarship and a perceptive discussion of Miller’s life and major works. Offers insight into reasons for Miller’s enduring popularity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Henry. Letters to Emil. Edited by George Wickes. New York: New Directions, 1989. A collection of several dozen letters from Henry Miller to Emil Schnellock, written when Miller was in Paris. The letters offer a unique record of Miller’s literary apprenticeship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winslow, Kathryn. Henry Miller: Full of Life. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1986. A memoir by a longtime friend of Miller who met the novelist in 1944, after he had moved to Big Sur.

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