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RENEGADE: HENRY MILLER AND THE MAKING OF TROPIC OF CANCER by Frederick Turner

Yale University Press. 244 pages. 20. ISBN 978-0-300-14949-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

 

 

My first encounter with Henry Miller was in 1956 when, as a young soldier in Germany, I came across a copy of a Signet paperback, Nights of Love and Laughter, a collection of his short pieces. I knew little about Miller, though I may have had a vague notion that he had a reputation as a writer of books like Tropic of Cancer that couldn't be bought in Britain because they were considered obscene. But there was nothing in the contents of Nights of Love and Laughter that anyone could take exception to, at least not in sexual terms. Some of the social attitudes expressed by Miller may have ruffled the feathers of a few conservatives, but that was fine by me. I'd bought the book because I was finding my way through American literature and read whatever seemed interesting.  The little paperback, and I still have it though the pages are falling out, had a lively introduction by Kenneth Rexroth and that also brought me into contact with someone who stood outside the conventional line-up of writers one was supposed to admire.

Miller wasn't a schooled writer in the sense of having studied literature in a university setting or in any other sort of formal way. And, in fact, it could be said that he often adopted a deliberate anti-intellectual and anti-literary stance, as in the opening passages of Black Spring Where he rhapsodises about growing up in the streets of Brooklyn and says: "In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature." Frederick Turner in Renegade sees such an attitude as very American: "While developing an authentic appreciation of the seven lively arts at their highest level, Miller had a lot in common with those many Americans who spat on culture and booted its effeminate pretensions. Often for his profoundest pleasure he retreated to the crude humour of the barroom and clubhouse, to literature at the level of the Police Gazette, and to burlesque, which was built on the mockery of high art."

Turner also adds that Miller had in him "a broad comic streak, but as with so much American humour there was almost always a shot of cruelty thrown in - sometimes a double." He quotes a frontier story about Mike Fink, a renowned Indian killer, who liked to demonstrate his marksmanship when drunk by shooting a cup of whiskey off the head of a willing participant. One day, though, he aimed too low and killed a friend, but simply asked, "Is the whiskey spilt?" According to Turner, Miller had absorbed this kind of attitude and it coloured his thinking when he came to write Tropic of Cancer. It's interesting to note that although he could be critical of America in many ways, he was still very much an American: "To be sure, he was definitely not a mainstream American, but still he belonged to a strong, colourful countervailing tradition of cranks, crooks, tall-talkers, hucksters, adventurers, outlaws, and Utopian dreamers that had its roots deep in the American experience."

Before Miller moved to Paris in 1930 he had behind him a string of jobs, a couple of wives and a daughter, and two unpublished novels. His second wife, June, who led him a merry dance in more ways than one, had helped him run a speakeasy where, Turner says, she entertained favoured clients in the bedroom, while Miller sat drinking and talking with his friends in the kitchen. Miller also had the "accumulated detritus of a random and crudely assembled self-education." The main problem was that, as a writer, he hadn't found his own voice. Perhaps he was trying too hard to be a writer in the conventional sense, and needed to follow a lead that had been provided earlier by Mark Twain. Turner refers to the "oral tradition that had grown up with the country," and he imagines Twain saying to the reader: "Listen, I'm not a writer like those other fellows. I'm a tale-teller, and my books are really yarns." It was when Miller began to realise that he didn't have to be a writer "like those other fellows," and that he was a "tale-teller," that he began to write in a distinctive way.

Like all good tale-tellers, Miller mythologized the facts of his life a great deal. Turner says that he later recalled growing up in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn "with an intensity that produced some of his most colourful work." As he said in Black Spring: "I am a patriot - of the 14th Ward Brooklyn, where I was raised. The rest of the United States doesn't exist for me, except as idea, or history, or literature." And, as Turner tells us, he often found himself at odds with what might be called "the conventional values" that governed America: "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." It wasn't surprising that one of his later books about America was called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.

Miller was in his late-thirties when he arrived in Paris, and he was broke and unknown. His wife, who had encouraged him to go to the French capital, had promised to send him money, but as her income was derived from various male admirers, and the Depression was beginning to bite hard into their earnings, he couldn't rely on her promises. Living in sleazy hotels, and wandering the streets, he still nursed dreams of becoming a published writer. He took notes, wrote long letters to friends, and determined not to sink into the sort of hopelessness that failure to succeed can often produce: "And it was what saved him from becoming just another of those dreary dregs of the old expat scene, the ones you saw on the terrace of Le Dome or the Lilas, talking endlessly, hopelessly, of the great novel they were going to write, the great pictures they were going to paint." Miller himself was a great talker, but it doesn't seem that his talk was a cover for a lack of determination when it came to his writing. It was just a matter of fixing on a style that would enable him to say what he wanted to say in the way that he wanted to say it. There is an example of what he was aiming for in a short story, "Mademoiselle Claude," which was published in New Review and then reprinted in the anthology, Americans Abroad (Servire Press, The Hague, 1932), where Miller was in the company of Hemingway, Pound, Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon, and others. One of Miller's biographers claimed that with this story "he struck the note he had been looking for; he found his voice, that of the literary clochard, the writer as outlaw." It also gave Miller a degree of standing as a writer, at least among the expatriate community in Paris.

A meeting with Alfred Perles, who worked for one of the American newspapers in Paris, had brought him into contact with people such as Walter Lowenfels and Michael Fraenkel, both of who, like Perles, would appear in Tropic of Cancer under fictitious names. And he also met Wambly Bald, who wrote a column called "La Vie de Boheme" for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. He had helped to draw attention to Miller by praising his story, and he described him as a "carefree freeloader." Bald had knocked around America before moving to Paris and, like Miller, contributed to Americans Abroad. His story focused on sex and drugs. He's described by Turner as "a sour cynic with a broad streak of cruelty to his character" who delighted in making Miller almost beg for handouts. Like Miller he wasn't too fussy about how he treated women. Bald becomes Van Norden in Tropic of Cancer and Miller's portrayal of him is ruthlessly honest in showing the cynicism and sheer nastiness in his mental make-up, and especially in his attitude towards women who he saw simply as objects to be used for his sexual pleasure. There's an episode in the book where Van Norden and the narrator take a half-starved prostitute to a hotel room and it still has the power to shock.
What eventually led Miller to establishing the style that gave Tropic of Cancer its immediacy was the advice from various people that he should write as he talked. Turner says that June told him "he'd be better off writing like himself instead of trying to ape his literary heroes." And Michael Fraenkel told Miller that he should ignore literary conventions and simply sit down at the typewriter and just let it pour out. It didn't matter about form, plots, and other literary devices. He should just write, using the materials of his own life and experiences as the basis for his fiction. Anais Nin, who got involved with both Miller and June, said that he "wasn't really a philosopher, an intellectual, a thinker.... Instead he was a writer, an artist gifted with an extraordinary imagination."

Tropic of Cancer is essentially the story of Miller's first year or so in Paris, and when he finally finished it he was faced with the problem of how to get it published. No British or American publisher would dare to handle it, and so the manuscript was handed to Jack Kahane who ran the Obelisk Press, a Paris-based outfit that specialised in English-language pornography that tourists liked to pick up and smuggle back to London or New York. But Kahane also had a desire to publish something that might not break through the censorship barrier but would be considered important. Miller's book seemed to be it, and Turner quotes him as saying, "nothing I had yet received was comparable to it for the splendour of its writing, the fathomless depth of its despair, the savour of its portraiture, the boisterousness of its humour." That last comment hit on an aspect of Tropic of Cancer that many people at the time would fail to see, especially if they looked on it purely as pornography. It is a very funny book and in some way it's hard to take it seriously, the comic aspects often overcoming the sheer vulgarity of many of the more bizarre scenes. It's true that aspects of Miller's thinking can be disturbing. The humour, particularly when it concerns women, can be misogynistic. There is also an element of anti-Semitism present, though Miller had Jewish friends and, at one point in his life, claimed to have Jewish ancestry. He could be a mass of contradictions at times.

Once Tropic of Cancer got into print it established a reputation for Miller that he found hard to shake off. And financially he didn't benefit from it, and later books such as Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring, because of their limited circulation. Miller scuffled to make a living from writing right up until the early 1960s when the censorship laws in America and Britain began to collapse and his books could be openly published in both countries. By that time, of course, he was more of a legend than a writer actively producing work that might be said to have a contemporary effect in terms of breaking new ground. But he could, and perhaps can, still shock, disturb, and even disgust.

Renegade is an interesting book and Turner's ideas about Millers role in the long line of literary outlaws make for lively reading. And it may be that his comments will make those who've only previously thought of Miller as a maverick near-pornographer think again. I have to say that there's nothing new in Turner's account of Miller's activities in New York and Paris. Biographies such as Mary V.Dearborn's The Happiest Man Alive (HarperCollins, London, 1991) offer a more-complete picture of what he got up to and the people he knew. But, to be fair to Frederick Turner, he clearly didn't set out to write a full biographical study of Miller. His aim was to write around Tropic of Cancer and show how it came to be written. There are still questions to be raised about how and why Henry Miller came to write the book, but Renegade does try to get close to providing some useful answers.