Banned Book Club: Tropic of Cancer

Title: Tropic of Cancer

Published: Published in Paris in 1934; banned in many English-speaking countries, then published in US in 1961

Author: Henry Valentine Miller (1891-1980)

Challenge status: #84 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #19 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: That Tropic of Cancer’s graphic treatment of sexuality is “frank” or “candid” is an understatement (the book revels in it), immediately upon publication in France (1934) the book was banned in the US and thus prohibited from being imported by US Customs (similar situation w/Joyce’s Ulysses, discussed earlier on this blog). In 1961 when Grove Press published the book in the US, over 60 obscenity lawsuits in over 21 states were brought against booksellers that sold it. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein overruled state court findings that Tropic of Cancer was obscene. The book was banned in Turkey in 1986.

First line: “I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.”


Self-indulgent. That was a vague feeling I had as I read through Henry Miller’s roughly autobiographical account of his time as a bohemian artist living in Paris in the early-30’s. The reader is pitched into a garish, seemingly infinite loop of sex, drinking, and schmoozing from the basest, most amoral and disinterested point of view. All the sex and drinking and hijinks are what got this booked labeled as obscenity, of course, but it’s not long before the details drop from salacious to simply dirty – and more mechanical than passionate. Miller even makes sure to account the details of the socially transmitted infections and the treatments required, as his characters continue their merry rampages with good girls, bad girls, and working girls. It is base, but it is boring.

Which is, of course, Miller’s point.

Nobody, so far as I can see, is making use of those elements in the air which give direction and motivation to our lives. Only killers seem to be extracting from life some satisfactory measure of what they are putting into it. The age demands violence, but we are getting only abortive explosions. Revolutions are nipped in the bud, or else successed too quickly. Passion is quickly exhausted. Men fall back on ideas, comme d’habitude. Nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours. — Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Is this book an existential exercise? I am not sure. Miller predates the Beat Generation by 20-30 years (authors that also swam in our organic, mortal muck) and follows Surrealism and Dada-ism, which he loved. His point of view is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters”, in the sense it is meant to portray a true (not idealized) portrait of normal, working-class life (though in Miller’s case it’s normal, working-artist-class life). James Joyce did something similar with Ulysses, in his use of language and allusion in the inner monologues of his characters (was part of the argument in overturning of the obscenity label on Ulysses). Does Miller suggest that life is pointless? Yes. Does Miller suggest that “morals” are trappings of the bourgeoisie meant to insulate them from the vitality of our own primitive life forces? Erm, yes. Does Miller suggest that only through excess, drama, and ecstatic satyric celebrations is art developed, and life lived? Yes. Hence the “self-indulgence”. (I found out after finishing the book that while in Paris, Anaïs Nin became Henry’s lover and financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer in 1934…some of the approach makes more sense now. And also her book, Henry & June).

Maybe the lifestyle isn’t one I find particularly appealing or inspiring, but man, can this guy write. I have tiny bookmarks all through the book:

  • “It is not difficult to be alone if you are poor and a failure. An artist is always alone–if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.
  • “I am sitting on a chair behind him, watching their movements with a cool, scientific detachment; it doesn’t matter to me if it should last forever. It’s like watching one of those crazy machines which through the newspaper out, millions and billions and trillions of them with their meaningless headlines. The machines seems more sensible, crazy as it is, and more fascinating to watch, than the human beings and the events which produced it.”
  • “Ideas have to be wedded to action; if there is no sex, no vitality in them, there is no action. Ideas cannot exist alone in the vacuum of the mind.”

And then in chapter 13 Miller goes completely nuts. At least I think it’s chapter 13; the chapters aren’t numbered, but it’s the one that starts off with “when the cold weather set in the princess disappeared”. The narrator is out with one of his friends, they are drunk and…in a whorehouse? A back-alley “club”? In either case the narrator becomes mesmerized by the in-his-face wares being displayed by one of the entertainers and he…goes on a bender of a soliloquy. This is when I actually started laughing, and got mad at Miller, because he made me suffer through the first 80% of the book before I realized he was just being a jerk on purpose. That’s an oversimplification, I think he had some real frustrations around expression, living, and ideas he was experimenting with….but still. Here’s a sample:

Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but I see now that it was meant to destroy me. Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles. I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity–I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples. I can see about me all those cracked forebears of mine dancing around the bed, consoling me, egging me on, lashing me with their serpent tongues, grinning and leering at me with their skulking skulls. I am inhuman! I say it with a mad, hallucinated grin, and I will keep on saying it though in rain crocodiles. Behind my words are all those grinning, leering, skulking skulls, some dead and grinning a long time, some grinning as if they had lockjaw, some grinning with the grimace of a grin, the foretaste and aftermath of what is always going on. Clearer than all I see my own grinning skull, see the skeleton dancing in the wind, serpents issuing from the rotted tongue and the bloated pages of ecstasy slimed with excrement. And I join my slime, my excrement, my madness, my ecstasy to the great circuit which flows through the subterranean vaults of the flesh. All this unbidden, unwanted, drunken vomit will flow on endlessly through the minds of those to come in the inexhaustible vessel that contains the history of the race. Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they bring a song that contaminates. – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Okay, I get it. Everybody’s crazypants, and in the land of the blind crazypants, the one-eyed artist is the syphilitic, alcohol-drenched king. Brilliant work, amazing writing. Definitely captured a particular perspective on Paris, specific to the time, that is oft romanticized.

LIke many artists, Henry Miller ended-up settling down in Northern California. In fact there is a Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur that hosts collections (writing, paintings) and events (my jealous face sees Yeah Yeah Yeahs are having an already sold-out show mid-August).


What do you think?

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