Tropic of Cancer (novel)

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Tropic of Cancer
First edition
Author Henry Miller
Cover artist Maurice Girodias [1] [ failed verification ]
Genre Autobiographical novel
Publisher Obelisk Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Followed by Black Spring  

Tropic of Cancer is a novel by Henry Miller that has been described as "notorious for its candid sexuality" and as responsible for the "free speech that we now take for granted in literature." [2] [3] It was first published in 1934 by the Obelisk Press in Paris, France, but this edition was banned in the United States. [4] Its publication in 1961 in the U.S. by Grove Press led to obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography in the early 1960s. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the book non-obscene. It is regarded as an important work of 20th-century literature.


Writing and publication

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.

First passage excerpt

Miller wrote the book between 1930 and 1934 during his "nomadic life" in Paris. [5] :105–107 The fictional Villa Borghese was actually 18 Villa Seurat in Paris' 14th arrondissement. [6] As Miller discloses in the text of the book, he first intended to title it "Crazy Cock". [7] Miller gave the following explanation of why the book's title was Tropic of Cancer: "It was because to me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch." [5] :38

Anaïs Nin helped to edit the book. [5] :109 In 1934, Jack Kahane's Obelisk Press published the book with financial backing from Nin, who had borrowed the money from Otto Rank. [5] :108 [8] :116

Emerson quotation, preface, and introduction

In the 1961 edition, opposite the novel's title page is a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: [9]

These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly. [10]

The 1961 edition includes an introduction by Karl Shapiro written in 1960 and titled "The Greatest Living Author". The first three sentences are:

I call Henry Miller the greatest living author because I think he is. I do not call him a poet because he has never written a poem; he even dislikes poetry, I think. But everything he has written is a poem in the best as well as in the broadest sense of the word. [10] :v–xxx

Following the introduction is a preface written by Nin in 1934, which begins as follows:

Here is a book which, if such a thing were possible, might restore our appetite for the fundamental realities. The predominant note will seem one of bitterness, and bitterness there is, to the full. But there is also a wild extravagance, a mad gaiety, a verve, a gusto, at times almost a delirium. [10] :xxxi–xxxiii


Set in France (primarily Paris) during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tropic of Cancer centers on Miller's life as a struggling writer. Late in the novel, Miller explains his artistic approach to writing the book itself, stating:

Up to the present, my idea of collaborating with myself has been to get off the gold standard of literature. My idea briefly has been to present a resurrection of the emotions, to depict the conduct of a human being in the stratosphere of ideas, that is, in the grip of delirium. [10] :243

Combining autobiography and fiction, some chapters follow a narrative of some kind and refer to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces; others are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections that are occasionally epiphanic. The novel is written in the first person, as are many of Miller's other novels, and does not have a linear organization, but rather fluctuates frequently between the past and present.


The book largely functions as an immersive meditation on the human condition. As a struggling writer, Miller describes his experience living among a community of bohemians in Paris, where he intermittently suffers from hunger, homelessness, squalor, loneliness, and despair over his recent separation from his wife. Describing his perception of Paris during this time, Miller wrote:

One can live in Paris—I discovered that!—on just grief and anguish. A bitter nourishment—perhaps the best there is for certain people. At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope. I was only flirting with disaster. ... I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. I understood why it is that here, at the very hub of the wheel, one can embrace the most fantastic, the most impossible theories, without finding them in the least strange; it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair. One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold, indifferent faces are the visages of one's keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is. The treadmill stretches away to infinitude, the hatches are closed down tight, logic runs rampant, with bloody cleaver flashing. [10] :180–182

There are many passages explicitly describing the narrator's sexual encounters. In 1978, literary scholar Donald Gutierrez argued that the sexual comedy in the book was "undeniably low... [but with] a stronger visceral appeal than high comedy". [11] :22 The characters are caricatures, and the male characters "stumbl[e] through the mazes of their conceptions of woman". [11] :24

Michael Hardin made the case for the theme of homophobia in the novel. [12] He proposed that the novel contained a "deeply repressed homoerotic desire that periodically surfaces". [12]

Music and dance are other recurrent themes in the book. [13] Music is used "as a sign of the flagging vitality Miller everywhere rejects". [13] References to dancing include a comparison of loving Mona to a "dance of death", and a call for the reader to join in "a last expiring dance" even though "we are doomed". [13]


Other than the first-person narrator "Henry Miller", [10] :108 the major characters include:

A friend who rents rooms at the Villa Borghese. [10] :22–23 The character was modeled after Michael Fraenkel, a writer who "had sheltered Miller during his hobo days" in 1930. [5] :103,176
A writer friend who complains about optimistic people, about Paris, and about writing. [10] :49–50 Miller helps Carl write love letters to "the rich cunt, Irene", and Carl relates his encounter with her to Miller. [10] :107–117 Carl lives in squalor and has sex with a minor. The inspiration for Carl was Miller's friend Alfred Perlès, a writer. [5] :10
A sailor who befriends Fillmore and Miller. [10] :194–208 As Collins had fallen in love with a boy in the past, his undressing a sick Miller to put him to bed has been interpreted as evidence of a homoerotic desire for Miller. [12]
A "young man in the diplomatic service" who becomes friends with Miller. [10] :193 He invites Miller to stay with him; later the Russian "princess" Macha with "the clap" joins them. [10] :219–238 Fillmore and Miller disrupt a mass while hung over. [10] :259–263 Toward the end of the book, Fillmore promises to marry a French woman named Ginette who is pregnant by him, but she is physically abusive and controlling, and Miller convinces Fillmore to leave Paris without her. [10] :292–315 Fillmore's real-life counterpart was Richard Galen Osborn, a lawyer. [5] :46
A character corresponding to Miller's estranged second wife June Miller. [5] :96–97 Miller remembers Mona, who is now in America, nostalgically. [10] :17–21,54,152,177–181,184–185,250–251
A woman married to Sylvester. [10] :56–57 The character was modeled after Bertha Schrank, who was married to Joseph Schrank. [14] It may also be noted that during the writing of the novel, Miller also had a passionate affair with Anais Nin; by changing the "T" to an "S", one can make out Anais from Tania by rearranging the letters. It may also be noted that in one of Nin's many passionate letters to Miller, she quotes his swoon found below. Tania has an affair with Miller, who fantasizes about her:

O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. [10] :5–6

Van Norden
A friend of Miller's who is "probably the most sexually corrupt man" in the book, having a "total lack of empathy with women". [11] :25–27 Van Norden refers to women using terms such as "my Georgia cunt", "fucking cunt", "rich cunt", "married cunts", "Danish cunt", and "foolish cunts". [10] :100–107 Miller helps Van Norden move to a room in a hotel, where Van Norden brings women "day in and out". [10] :117–146 The character was based on Wambly Bald, a gossip columnist. [15]

United States

Upon the book's publication in France in 1934, the United States Customs Service banned the book from being imported into the U.S. [16] Frances Steloff sold copies of the novel smuggled from Paris during the 1930s at her Gotham Book Mart, which led to lawsuits. [17] A copyright-infringing edition of the novel was published in New York City in 1940 by "Medusa" (Jacob Brussel); its last page claimed its place of publication to be Mexico. [18] Brussel was eventually sent to jail for three years for the edition. [19]

In 1950, Ernest Besig, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, attempted to import Tropic of Cancer along with Miller's other novel, Tropic of Capricorn , to the United States. Customs detained the novels and Besig sued the government. Before the case went to trial, Besig requested a motion to admit 19 depositions from literary critics testifying to the "literary value of the novels and to Miller's stature as a serious writer". [20] The motion was denied by Judge Louis A. Goodman. The case went to trial with Goodman presiding. Goodman declared both novels obscene. Besig appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, but the novels were once again declared "obscene" in a unanimous decision in Besig v. United States.

In 1961, when Grove Press legally published the book in the United States, over 60 obscenity lawsuits in over 21 states were brought against booksellers that sold it. [16] [21] The opinions of courts varied; for example, in his dissent from the majority holding that the book was not obscene, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno wrote Cancer is "not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity." [22]

Publisher Barney Rosset hired lawyer Charles Rembar to help Rosset lead the "effort to assist every bookseller prosecuted, regardless of whether there was a legal obligation to do so". [23] [24] Rembar successfully argued two appeals cases, in Massachusetts and New Jersey, [21] [25] although the book continued to be judged obscene in New York and other states. [23]

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, cited Jacobellis v. Ohio (which was decided the same day) and overruled state court findings that Tropic of Cancer was obscene. [26] [27]

Other countries

The book was banned outside the U.S. as well:

Critical reception

Individual reviewers

In 1935, H. L. Mencken read the 1934 Paris edition, and sent an encouraging note to Miller: "I read Tropic of Cancer a month ago. It seems to me to be a really excellent piece of work, and I so reported to the person who sent it to me. Of this, more when we meet." [32]

George Orwell reviewed Tropic of Cancer in The New English Weekly in 1935. [33] Orwell focused on Miller's descriptions of sexual encounters, which he deemed significant for their "attempt to get at real facts", and which he saw as a departure from dominant trends. Orwell argued that, although Miller concerns himself with uglier aspects of life, he is nonetheless not quite a pessimist, and seems to find that the contemplation of ugliness makes life more worthwhile rather than less. [34] Concluding, he described Tropic of Cancer as "a remarkable book" and recommended it to "anyone who can get hold of a copy" [35] Returning to the novel in the essay "Inside the Whale" (1940), George Orwell wrote the following:

I earnestly counsel anyone who has not done so to read at least Tropic of Cancer. With a little ingenuity, or by paying a little over the published price, you can get hold of it, and even if parts of it disgust you, it will stick in your memory. ... Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance.... [36]

Samuel Beckett hailed it as "a momentous event in the history of modern writing". [37] Norman Mailer, in his 1976 book on Miller entitled Genius and Lust , called it "one of the ten or twenty great novels of our century, a revolution in consciousness equal to The Sun Also Rises ". [38]

Edmund Wilson said of the novel:

The tone of the book is undoubtedly low; The Tropic of Cancer, in fact, from the point of view both of its happenings and of the language in which they are conveyed, is the lowest book of any real literary merit that I ever remember to have read... there is a strange amenity of temper and style which bathes the whole composition even when it is disgusting or tiresome. [39]

In Sexual Politics (1970), Kate Millett wrote that Miller "is a compendium of American sexual neuroses", showing "anxiety and contempt" toward women in works such as Tropic of Cancer. [40] :295–296 In 1980, Anatole Broyard described Tropic of Cancer as "Mr. Miller's first and best novel", showing "a flair for finding symbolism in unobtrusive places" and having "beautiful sentence[s]". [41] Julian Symons wrote in 1993 that "the shock effect [of the novel] has gone", although "it remains an extraordinary document". [42] A 2009 essay on the book by Ewan Morrison described it as a "life-saver" when he was "wandering from drink to drink and bed to bed, dangerously close to total collapse". [43]

Appearances in lists of best books

The book has been included in a number of lists of best books, such as the following:


Influences on Miller

Critics and Miller himself have claimed that Miller was influenced by the following in writing the novel:

Novel's influence on other writers

Tropic of Cancer "has had a huge and indelible impact on both the American literary tradition and American society as a whole". [56] The novel influenced many writers, as exemplified by the following:


The novel was adapted for a 1970 film Tropic of Cancer directed by Joseph Strick, and starring Rip Torn, James T. Callahan, and Ellen Burstyn. [2] Miller was a "technical consultant" during the production of the movie; although he had reservations about the adaptation of the book, he praised the final movie. [2] :147 The film was rated X in the United States, which was later changed to an NC-17 rating. [60]

References or allusions in other works

Film and television


The typescript of the book was auctioned for $165,000 in 1986. [67] Yale University now owns the typescript, which was displayed to the public in 2001. [68]

See also

Related Research Articles

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Further reading