Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of "Tropic of Cancer"by Frederick Turner
Though branded as pornography for its graphic language and explicit sexuality, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is far more than a work that tested American censorship laws. In this riveting book, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Tropic of Cancer's initial U.S. release, Frederick Turner investigates Miller’s/i>/i>
Though branded as pornography for its graphic language and explicit sexuality, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is far more than a work that tested American censorship laws. In this riveting book, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Tropic 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 Cancer was 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 that Tropic of Cancer is “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.
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RenegadeHenry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer
By Frederick Turner
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2011 Frederick Turner
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Fuck Everything!"
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, formlessfuck everything!" he exclaimed.
As a telegraphic précis of what would three years later become Tropic 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 who dealt in what today would be called "soft pornography," it completely fulfilled the bravado of Miller's proclamation, especially in its sustained tone of savage abandon"fuck everything!"
The expression is, of course, street-corner argot for the defiant impulse to hurl aside all considerations, conventions, and costs and to strike out recklessly into uncharted territory and there achieve personally unprecedented successor a final failure. Defiant though it is, the impulse must ultimately come from a profound sense of failure, of having been balked and defeated at every turn so that at last there is nothing left to lose. The successful don't have to say, "Fuck everything!" Failures might, and in that deadness of late August in Depression-era Paris Henry Miller definitely belonged in the latter category: he'd apparently lost everything, nationality, job, wife, even his language, which he couldn't use in this foreign place.
On a more literal plane, the book Miller was about to embark on was one in which the narrator and his lawless companions do indeed try to "fuck everything," even perhaps so unlikely a target as the one-legged hooker Miller mentions in telling detail as he used to pass her nightly stand in the Place de Clichy:
After midnight she stands there in her black rig rooted to the spot. Back of her is the little alleyway that blazes like an inferno. Passing her now with a light heart she reminds me somehow of a goose tied to a stake, a goose with a diseased liver, so that the world may have its paté de fois gras. Must be strange taking that wooden stump to bed with you. One imagines all sorts of thingssplinters, etc. However, each man to his taste.
It was passages like this in which a profoundly forbidden form of sex is described with a cruel humor that prompted American tourists in Paris to smuggle home copies of the banned book soon after Jack Kahane's Obelisk Press published it. They kept on doing so until the war interrupted travel to the continent. At the war's end GIs discovered the book, and then eventually the tourists returned to guiltily and gleefully carry it back to the States wrapped in shirts or shawls. By the 1950s Tropic of Cancer had acquired a folkloric status while its author wore with an increasing unease the shadowy reputation as a writer of truly "dirty books"or, as he occasionally styled himself with some bitterness, a "gangster author."
Something of this reputation clings to Miller still, like smoke, though he is long dead. And yet over the years since 1934, and particularly since Barney Rosset's Grove Press triumphed over the censors and published an American edition of Cancer in 1961, a simultaneous process has been at work. In it Miller's purely literary reputation has steadily risen so that now he is generallyif somewhat grudginglyacknowledged to be a major American writer, maybe even a great one. And Tropic of Cancer, his first published novel, has risen from smuggled dirty book to American classic, a work that belongs on a select shelf of works that best tell us who we are, for better or worse.
Emil Schnellock might well have been pardoned had he reacted to his friend's proclamation with a heavy dollop of skepticism. They'd known each other since they attended P.S. 85 in Brooklyn's Bushwick section some thirty years back, and for much of that time, it seemed, Miller had been jawing about becoming a writer. But after all the impassioned, profanity-spattered talk, some of it brilliant and colored with various violent prejudices; after his furious work on three extended pieces of fiction; after he'd left his first wife because a second one believed in his dreamafter all this he had perilously little to show for it. The fictions remained unpublished and were perhaps unpublishable, and only a clutch of his shorter pieces had seen print in obscure places. Meanwhile, Schnellock, from a similar background and harboring his own artistic aspirations, had become a successful illustrator with a studio in Manhattan. What now could he have thought of his old friend, starving over there in Paris, except that once again Henry had failed? Maybe he also felt a little guilty, because it was he who had been partially responsible for Miller's last-ditch, desperate decision to ship out for Paris in the winter of 1930, hoping the fabled city would somehow crack open that volcano of creative energy he felt he had within him. For Schnellock had seen Paris and the continent's other great cities and had for years been filling Miller with exquisitely detailed descriptions of those places and of that deep humus of art and culture so abundantly available there. Without quite meaning to he had encouraged in his friend a conviction amounting to a lifelong mania that America was hostile to artists, whereas the Old World was unfailingly nurturing. And when the desperate Miller, facing the death of his dream, and having really nowhere else to go, had decided it had to be Paris or bust, it had been Schnellock that he turned to, not his second wife June, who couldn't wait to be rid of him. Schnellock had put some steel in his spine and ten dollars in his pocket for the trip across the dark Atlantic and then down at the docks had seen him off.
Besides his ticket and Schnellock's tenner, Miller shipped with two valises and a trunk. In these he had some suits made by his tailor father, the drafts of two of the failed novels, and a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. But within him, buried beneath the accumulated detritus of a random and crudely assembled self-education, Miller was carrying a great deal more than these meager effects. In the lengthening years of his exile it became evident to him that his task was to discover through deprivation and doubt and often intense loneliness what this was that he carried and to learn how to make creative use of it.
From young manhood he had hated what his native land had become: more mercenary than the meanest whore and viciously intolerant of real or suspected deviations from the national norm. Such a phase in intellectual development, of course, is hardly unusual in young people in America and elsewhere in the developed world. But in Miller's case what he came to believe at so early an age he still believed on the last day he drew breath. Perhaps somewhat inchoate in his schoolboy years, this habit of mind was well established by the time he joined the workforce out of high school. By the time he shipped for Paris it was a pillar of his personality, a way of explaining where he now found himself, and the longer he was away from America, the more he hated it until the hatred became a hysteria that spattered the pages of his interminable letters to Emil Schnellock. When the war exiled him once againback to Americahe found his old home as hateful as ever and poured his feelings about it into such books as The Air-Conditioned Nightmare and its sequel, Remember to Remember, which invidiously compares America to la belle France. But if in 1930 he had imagined that Paris (and more generally the Old World) offered an authentic escape from the coarseness and heartlessness of America, he was wrong. Wrong about Henry Miller, anyway, because no one could have been in a certain sense more ineradicably American than the man who had left it on that wintry February morning. To be sure, he was definitely not a mainstream American, but still he belonged to a strong, colorful countervailing tradition of cranks, crooks, tall-talkers, hucksters, adventurers, outlaws, and utopian dreamers that had its roots deep in the American experience.
Even though his earliest associations were strongly flavored by his German ethnicity, once he had been loosed from his mother's apron strings he plunged headlong into the culture of his time and place, absorbingalmost helplessly it seemsits sights, sounds, smells, the rough roll of its urban rhythms, its prejudices and stunning contradictions. He was a great "noticer" of even the most minute details of quotidian life and could remember them years afterward. Much later he would elevate this talent to the status of a moral obligation. Thinking back to an old friend from the Paris days, Alfred Perlès, Miller invoked his injunction that the "mission of man on earth is to remember. To remember to remember." This is a great talent for a writer to have, of course, Marcel Proust being the prime example. Yet ungoverned it can become the enemy of coherence and form, leading him or her into distracting divagations and structural cul-de-sacs as well as endless back alleys of almost free association. Never one to deny himself the prompting of an instinct or the prospect of a pleasure, Miller characteristically followed whatever caught his interest, even if this was only fleetingly. "There was a child went forth every day," Walt Whitman wrote in 1855,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day ... or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
This was Henry Miller, who by 1930 had interested himself in various physical culture fads, burlesque theater, boxing, six-day bicycle races, professional wrestling, the production of chewing gum, the trade union movement, and radical politics; the cranks and toughs and petty criminals of his Brooklyn neighborhood; esoteric religious cults like theosophy; debating, tabloid journalism, the movies, and magicians. Also:
American Can, American Tel. & Tel., Atlantic & Pacific, Standard Oil, United Cigars, Father John, Sacco & Vanzetti, Uneeda Biscuit, Seaboard Air Line, Sapolio, Nick Carter, Trixie Friganza, Foxy Grandpa, the Gold Dust Twins, Tom Sharkey, Valeska Suratt, Commodore Schley, Millie de Leon, Theda Bara, Robert E. Lee, Little Nemo, Lydia Pinkham, Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Diamond Jim Brady, Schlitz-Milwaukee, Hemp St. Louis, Daniel Boone, Mark Hanna, Alexander Dowie, Carrie Nation, Mary Baker Eddy, Pocahontas, Fatty Arbuckle, Ruth Snyder, Lillian Russell, Sliding Billy Watson, Olga Nethersole, Billy Sunday, Mark Twain, Freeman & Clarke, Joseph Smith, Battling Nelson, Aimee Semple McPherson, Horace Greeley ...
In Black Spring this list of public figures, place names, and commercial products continues on until it reaches almost two hundred. Such recollections of phenomena, however, do not add up to artistic accomplishment. They are only the potential raw materials of it. Still, the person on whom little is lost (to use a variation of Henry James's notion of the exemplary human being) is admirably positioned to make creative use of what others have ignored or else have regarded as the inevitable detritus of daily life.
This same omnivorousness had also played a role in the lengthy list of occupations Miller had tried his hand at by the time of his exile. He had been a file clerk, an agricultural laborer, a worker in a tailor shopthough he had not actually been a tailor. For a brief time he worked in a bank, had taught piano, and had a stint as an editor at a mail-order catalog outfit. He ran a speakeasy with his second wife, June, and had been a handyman at a YMCAthough hazardously unhandy. He had sold encyclopedias door-to-door and chocolates to diners in Manhattan restaurants. For several years he had been an employment officer for Western Union. Most significantly from his point of view, he had tried writing, both as a freelance journalist and as an unsponsored freehand novelist whose models were the greats of continental literature.
Thusand inevitably, as it must seem to us nowby 1930 Miller had willy-nilly absorbed so much of American culture, both past and present, that he could hardly have successfully escaped his nationality even had he fetched up somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Everything important about him reflected aspects of that very culture he never tired of disparaging. Like so many of his countrymen he was a shape-shifter, altering occupations, addresses, and personae as circumstances dictated. In a culture that historically had regarded a certain kind of lawlessness as a necessary virtue, Miller evidently felt more at home inhabiting a kind of murky fringe-land between a strict fidelity to the law and actual illegality, as if to be an outlaw of sorts was to be truest to the anarchical spirit that had gone into the making of a new nation. He was a tall-talker in a country that loved such talk and forgave a man much if only he had the "gift of gab." He was a man of pronounced, deeply held prejudices who, despite his parents' immigrant background, feared and disliked "foreign" newcomers as well as those who looked different from him. Seemingly almost from birth he believed in the natural superiority of men to women while remaining bewildered by the allegedly inferior gender's mysterious ability to reduce men to blobs of emotional jelly. While developing an authentic appreciation of the seven lively arts at their higher levels, Miller had a lot in common with those many Americans who spat on culture and hooted at its effeminate pretensions. Often for his profoundest pleasure he retreated to the crude humor of the barroom and the clubhouse, to literature at the level of the Police Gazette, and to burlesque, which was built on the mockery of high art. There was in him a broad comic streak, but as with so much of American humor there was almost always a shot of cruelty thrown insometimes a double. This special mixturethe American Grotesquewhere laughter coexists with fear and suffering, high spirits with black despondalso characterizes Miller's personal temperament, which could veer from hilarity and cosmic optimism to the real blues and even suicidal despair.
Perhaps Miller's most significant connection to his culture was his unquenchable zest for adventure and improvisation, for it was this that had gone into exploration and settlement here; into technological innovation; into social experimentation on the grandest of scales; and into blues and jazz, those quintessential American art forms, which Miller sometimes emulated in his finest flights of prose. America, Miller believed, was improvisation itself writ large, and it was only when the nation turned away from that and began to calcify into a tyrannous orthodoxy that it betrayed its bright promise for the human race.
Aboard the Bremen, plowing eastward into the historic past, Miller felt himself in flight from all thisor as much of it as he could have been conscious of. America was now a "slaughterhouse" where millions were ground to gristle to feed the devouring maw of Progress. But over the ensuing months that would lengthen into years Miller was to learn that, while he might have escaped the slaughterhouse, he had not escaped the man America had shaped. In one of his letters to Schnellock he would claim that he was no longer an American, even if he wasn't a Frenchman and never would be. He was, he said with some justice, an expatriate. More precisely, though, what Miller had become was a renegade of a special sort.
The renegade of frontier history and folklore is driven by his hatred of the circumstances of his birth and upbringing, and this Miller certainly had in spades. But what he learned in Paris's bleakest quarters was that his background, his life and interests, his fund of knowledge of American history, folklore, and popular culture could be for him an inexhaustible source of creativity instead of a soul-withering curse. So, where too often the renegade comes to a violent and isolated end, Henry Miller not only survived, but bloomed into the artist he had so longand apparently hopelesslyaspired to be. When at last in a foreign land he found his voice it was in a "war whoop," as he was to put it in Tropic of Cancer. The war whoop's raw notes were drawn from variegated sources. In part they came from the Yankee pitchman-bunco artist, a tale spinner who used his gift of gab to hoodwink his listeners. Another part of it came from the violently inflated brags of boatmen on the mighty rivers of the continental interior. There entered into it as well the bloody prints of the legends of deer slayers, buffalo hunters, backwoodsmen, Indian killers, and outlaws of the hinterlands and urban slums. Beneath all of these there was the brooding fact of discovery, the discovery of a vast, unexpected land mass that might have been an even greater opportunity to right the wrongs of the Old World's blood-wracked historybut was not. The war whoop that Miller sounds in Tropic of Cancer is fundamentally about this once-only chance. It consistently asks us in its rawness, its chaotic violence, its painful comedy, "What if?" Whitman, whose work he'd carried to France, had characterized his own belated breakthrough out of silence and stammering as a "barbaric yawp." That barbaric yawp had changed the national literature. Miller's war whoop was to do so again.
Excerpted from Renegade by Frederick Turner Copyright © 2011 by Frederick Turner. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Frederick Turner is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Into the Heart of Life: Henry Miller at One Hundred. He lives in Santa Fe, NM.
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