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Monday, April 16, 2018

Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller


Book Review
Tropic of Cancer (1934)
 by Henry Miller

   The publication date of 1934 is misleading.  Tropic of Cancer wasn't published in the United States or Great Britain until 1961 and after that it figured prominently in the obscenity law spawned litigation that helped redraw the rules of free speech in the United States to their modern, lenient standards  This puts Henry Miller in the same category with James Joyce, whose frank descriptions in Ulysses made it another trailblazer in American publishing jurisprudence. Since then the debate has been whether Miller deserves it, helped by the tremendous popularity the suddenly-au-courant book involved with the start of the1960's.  Tropic of Cancer is the Paris book, Tropic of Capicorn the New York book.

   And while Tropic of Cancer may have been judged "not obscene" by the it certainly is a dirty book.  That is kind of the point, the over all dirtiness, both sexual and in terms of hygiene, that seems to be the very point of Henry Miller, a kind of non-religious spiritual mortification of the spirit, the 20th century equivalent of a medieval flagellant. I was young when I read Tropic of Cancer for the first time- high school.   As a 41 year old, Miller's sexual obsession is less interesting that it was to my 16 year old self, for obvious reasons.

   I think in terms of literary merit, the jury is still out on  Henry Miller. He's still read, because of his proximity to the Beats and the importance of his depiction of 1930's Paris in the psyche of the American back packer.  On the other hand, he is never spoken in the same breath as the pioneering Modernists, and nor is he an iconic mid century figure like Samuel Beckett.  He's also surely lost some audience in recent decades to Charles Bukowski, who transported the Miller-ian obsessions of sex, loafing and cadging to the sunny climes of Southern California. 

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