Hollie Wuestman

Major 20th Century Writers

November 2000

Tropic Of Cancer

Henry (Valentine) Miller

Henry Miller is considered one of the best writers of the 20th Century. In fact, Tropic of Cancer is considered one of the best books of our time. Now I find this personally disturbing since the book has absolutely NO PLOT what so ever. I will get back to that point a little later, but first in order to somewhat understand Topic of Cancer, I must tell you a little bit about Henry Miller.

Henry Miller was born December 26, 1891 in New York. After graduating high school, Miller held various jobs varying from cabdriver to librarian. He studied for a short period of time at City College, but disliked the environment and left after two months. In 1917, Miller met and married his first of five wives, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, with whom he has one child, Barbara. Miller took a job with Western Union Telegraph Company in 1920, which he later writes about in Tropic of Capricorn (Moss 1). Henry worked for the messenger service for four years until he met a taxi dancer named June Mansfield who became his second wife. June supported Henry so that he could pursue his artistic love. She saved enough money for the two of them to travel to Europe. Once Henry and June started to experience problems, he left for Paris in 1930. She is represented as Mona in Tropic of Cancer. Paris is where he wrote the novels that gave him the most recognition. While in Paris, Miller also befriended a woman who was to be his long time lover and occasional benefactor Anais Nin. Their relationship is ironically documented by Nin rather than Miller as we heard from Mollyís presentation last week. Ninís diaries are filled with social engagements, their love affair and a love affair with Millerís wife, June. These stories were made famous in the 1992 film, Henry and June (Moss 2). Miller left Paris in 1939 after the publication of Tropic of Capricorn. Miller then went to live with a long time friend, Lawrence Durell in Greece. Once WWII began, Miller promptly returned to the United States. He settled in Big Sur and lived there until 1963. While living in Big Sur, Miller married two more of his eventual five wives, Janina Martha Lepska, with who he had two children and in 1953, Eve McClure. With his two children, Tony and Valentine, Miller lived on Partington Ridge (also known as Andersonís Point). His marriage to Eve ended in 1960 because his popularity became too hard on the relationship (Moss 3). In 1961, after going to court, Millerís works bypassed censorship in the United States and Tropic of Cancer was published by Grove Press. Tropic of Cancer sold over two and a half million copies in the first two years of publication. In 1967, Miller married is fifth wife, Hoki Tokuda, but was divorced in 1978. The last twenty years of Millerís life were spent in the Pacific Palisades. Miller died on June 7, 1980 in his Pacific Palisades home (Moss 4). He has won two awards: Special citation from the Formentor Prize Committee in 1961, as "one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century", and Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, France 1975 (Henry V 1). His most well know works are Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Black Spring.


Critics debated whether Millerís writings had any true literary merit. The books Miller wrote were neither novels in the traditional sense nor nonfiction, but autobiographical novels based largely on his experiences in Paris and other parts of the world. The seamier side of Paris life was what Miller knew best, and part of that world involved sex and prostitution. Miller said in an interview "I wrote about sex because it was such a big part of my life. Sex was always the dominant thing. People have said that I threw in juicy passages just to keep the reader awake. That is not true. My everyday life was full of this objectionable or questionable material." (Henry 13). Sex is important in Millerís books. James Campbell commented "sex is present both as a means of subversion and as a metaphor of birth. The female sex organ is ëa symbol for the connection of all things,"í Campbell continued, quoting Miller, "Öand [represents] the movementÖaway from all that is redolent of the real obscenity of hypocrisy and away from the industrialized world." Campbell then points out that Millerís writings "begin from the station of failure and that their whole movement towards a vantage point beyond death. In this respect, too, sex is primary since the purpose of sex is to augment life (Henry 14). Millerís philosophy was that life should be revered over all other considerations. Freedom was more important that materialism; individuality took precedence over social conformity. The philosophical aspects of Millerís writing most strongly resemble those of American poet Walt Whitman. The anti-artistic style of his prose (Miller was not interested in conventional uses of plotting and characterization) disturbed some reviewers who felt that the lack of form was a sign of poor craftsmanship. Others praised the surrealistic imagery and descriptions in his writings. Today, many critics consider the philosophy that Miller expressed in his writings to be of more enduring importance than his actual writing skills. In his works, Miller attacked what he perceived to be the repression of the individual in a civilization bedeviled by technology, Victorian mores, and politics. Millerís criticism of Western culture evidenced his affinities with such philosophers as Griedrich Nietzche and Oswald Spengler.


The explicit sexual content of Millerís work and his revolutionary use of scatological humor and obscene language underscored his rebellion and caused his works to be censored in most English speaking countries until the early 1960ís. In fact, Miller himself was even denied entrance to England by port authorities (Henry 1).

Critics considered the bawdy humor, obscene language, and explicit sexual content in Tropic of Cancer to be sexist. Miller repeatedly argued that obscenity is actually found in the world, and he was simply persecuted for telling the truth.



As I mentioned earlier, Tropic of Cancer is Millerís most famous and acclaimed work. It is a lyrical, profane, and surreal portrait of the authorís experiences in the bohemian underworld of 1930s Paris. The novel was a personal and artistic breakthrough for Miller.

"Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing,

you canít wait until you have her in your arms. And five

minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You

feel tricked. I return to Paris with money in my pocket ‚ a

few hundred francs, which Collins had shoved in my pocket

just as I was boarding the train." (Cancer 209)

I chose this passage to give you a feel for how Miller views Paris as well as society and for you to get an idea of how fickle he is with all aspects of his life.

Plot and Major Characters

Tropic of Cancer begins with the narrator describing his friends. He disdains Moldorf as a "word-drunk" poetaster (inferior poet) and dismisses Van Norden and Sylvester as failed writers, reserving his praise for Boris and Carl, who are "mad and tone deafÖsufferers." The protagonist signs praises to the sex organs of Tania and Llona, describes his love of prostitutes, Parisian vistas, and food and relates his methods for cadging (begging) meals from his wealthier friends (Henry 5).

Major Themes

The central theme of Tropic of Cancer is the pervasive sickness and squalor of modern society and the resulting degeneracy of its literature. The theme of sexual and artistic liberation, manifests itself in its Whitmanesque poetic embrace of sexuality, its open disdain for the constraints of society, and its declarations of antagonism toward the conventions of the modern novel (Henry 4).


Tropic of Cancer has many different storylines. None of them dominates over the other for very long intervals, and none of them can be separated from the life of the storyteller. There are the lives of the many different characters, and then there is the narratorís life filled with his interests, attitudes, and obsessions. It is here that we discover the ego of Henry Miller. In the next few passages we can see a few of the different mood changes Miller goes through (egotistic, erotic, humane, humiliated, furious, sensual, sullen, philosophic, naïve, nourished, literary, etc):


"I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the

happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought

that I was an artist. I no longer think about is, I am. Every-

thing that was literature has fallen from me." (Cancer, 1)


"Sunday! Left the Villa Borghese a little before noon, just

as Boris was getting ready to sit down to lunch. I left out of

a sense of delicacy, because it really pains Boris to see me

sitting there in the studio with an empty belly. Why he

doesnít invite me to lunch with him I donít know." (Cancer 37)


"Up to the present, my idea in collaboration 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 I the stratosphere of

ideas, that is, in the grip of delirium." (Cancer 243)


"Still I canít get out of my mind what a discrepancy there is

between ideas and living." (Cancer 242)


In Tropic of Cancer, Miller repeatedly presents the following pleasures: food, drink, women, sex and of course, himself. He even gets joy out of simple things like watching people in the slums of Paris. He immerses himself in these pleasures to ignore the painful absence of his wife. The following passages show the audience how much Miller actually treasures his pleasures:


"The mere thought of a meal, rejuvenates me. A meal! That

means something to go on- - a few solid hours of work, an

erection possibly. I donít deny it. I have health, good solid

animal health. The only thing that stands between me and

a future is a meal, another meal." (Cancer 49)


"Going for the liquor I am already intoxicatedÖEverything

is loose and splashyÖI have a bottle between my legs and Iím

shoving the corkscrew inÖThe wine is splashing between my

legs, the sun is splashing through the bay window, and inside

my veins there is a bubble and splash of a thousand crazy things

that commence (Cancer 14)


"For one second like I obliterate myself. Thereís not even one

me thenÖthereís nothingÖnot even the cunt. Itís like receiving

communion. Honest, I mean that. For a few seconds afterward

I have a fine spiritual glow (Cancer 130)




"On whatever crumb my eye fastens, I will pounce and devour.

If to live is the paramount thing, than I will liveÖPhysically

I am alive. Morally I am free (Cancer 98)

Why the terms "tropic" and "cancer"

I using the term "tropic", Miller uses it in a sense that comes from the Greek root: to turn back. The tropics are the imaginary lines where the sun "turns back" or doesnít move any farther south or north. A turning back of cancer is a healing process.

In using the term cancer, Miller is referring to the "sick reality that characterizes a society of one dimensional people whose lives are monotones and who live in a dead world beneath the Earthís surface." (Henry 14)


The three objectives Miller portrays are 1) Henry Miller 2) freedom and 3) experience. Women are portrayed chiefly as an object of sex and manís desires. Overall it has no plot. The form is very ragged and the language is vulgar. The hardest part of the book is the fact that Miller doesnít give us any type of time frames. The book proceeds forward in time, but the jumps between paragraphs are unpredictable. Tropic of Cancer is about a man reinventing himself. He has reached rock bottom and if he stays alive, the only way to go is up.

Whether you like Tropic of Cancer or not, it is impossible to find ANY novel written by an American in the 1930ís that comes close to it in originality.









Works of Henry Miller:
























Works Cited Page

"Henry Miller: The Life and Literature of Obscenity."


7 November 2000.

"Henry (Valentine) Miller." Gale Literary Database.


cancer.html. 8 November 2000.

Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove Press. 1961.

Moss, Wendy. Monterey County Historical Society. http://users.dedot.com/mchs/miller.html.

10 November 2000.