A more or less “official” publication of TROPIC OF CANCER hit American shores in the Year of Our Lord 1961 from Grove Press. In fact, every copy I have of this book – 5 of them in all (3 paperback, 2 hardcover) are the Grove editions. The cover depicted above is from an earlier print that was published overseas.
Perhaps if I’d seen this particular cover earlier as a young teen, it would have sparked my interest enough to want to read it. At first, I probably would have thought it was a science fiction novel about a giant crab that threatens to destroy the world. Hey, I grew up on those giant bug and monster films that Universal Studios released to the world in the decade before I was born, so you’ll forgive me, I hope, for possibly having thought TROPIC OF CANCER might be about this very thing. The odd title notwithstanding.
As I write this (March 1, 2012), I am reading TROPIC OF CANCER for the second time. The first time left me very little to remember about the book, so I wanted to see if tackling it again would impress me a bit more.
See, the thing is, the book definitely WAS shocking since it found an initial release in 1934. Henry, our old buddy and pal, writes some pretty vicious, bitter things about women. He overuses that “C” word that you ladies hate so much. You know, that four letter one that starts with a “C and ends with a “t”. I have the impression that he really didn’t respect women all that much. (Incidentally, dear ladies, do you want to know the “C” word that men hate the most? Catheter. Just sayin’.)
Henry basically admits at the beginning of TROPIC OF CANCER that his book is a libel and a “kick in the pants to God”. He also tells me he wants to dance on my “dirty corpse”. That would have been quite a feat since I was born 26 years after he wrote this book. It probably would have been hard for him to dance while on a walker, though, after the year I was born. Plus the fact that I’m not dead yet comes into play here, too, but whatever.
It’s ok, though, I don’t hold it against Henry. After all, he left us in 1980. Looks like God kicked Henry right back in his own pants then, wouldn’t you say? That being what it is, why don’t we just call it even?
I am on page 63 of the hardcover edition of TROPIC OF CANCER at this point in time. I have 258 more pages to get through until it ends at page 321. Who knows how many other times I will see the “C” word, hear him say “fuck this” or “fuck that” in the text?
Henry writes his prose in an immediate style narrative, so it’s like getting a text or a tweet from him. He’s mad at and seems to hate everyone and everything, yet he loves everyone and everything at the same time. He has nothing, but he is happy. I caught on to his con job immediately. “If you have nothing, Henry,” I was asking him in my head, “then what is it that you are using to type your book manuscript?”
That aside, there are certainly things that one can enjoy and admire about the book – if you don’t tire of vulgarities and his incessant obsession with sexual liaisons, descriptions of bathroom activities/difficulties, STDs and observations about body lice. There are, however, some laugh out loud moments here, which sort of tempers the things I didn’t like about TROPIC OF CANCER.
It’s easy enough to see why TROPIC OF CANCER is considered to be one of the most “important” works in 20th century literature. It’s simply because the book caused a censorship firestorm and legal battles that basically paved the way for First Amendment rights for the books that would follow. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression mean the world to me, so thank you to our Supreme Court System for upholding this. For these reasons, yes, TROPIC OF CANCER is a great book and it should be embraced and celebrated as such.
But is it a GOOD book? Depends on who you ask, I guess.
I was amused to learn that in College Campuses across the country in the 1960s, it was considered “hip” to dig Henry Miller and especially TROPIC OF CANCER. Perhaps a movement was started by Literature Professors to deify Henry and his book. I can imagine these teachers telling the College students, “Hey, you kids get out of that phone booth – ALL OF YOU – and quit swallowing those goldfish! Come here and read TROPIC OF CANCER; it will become the ‘in’ thing to do! You kids don’t want to be considered ‘squares’, do you?”
Ironic to think that these same students are more than likely now retired professionals (and probably squares) whose own grandkids may be the very College students getting arrested on “drunk in public” charges on shows like CAMPUS P.D. or BEACH PATROL. We’ve gone from the students of decades past saying things like “the bees knees”, “the cat’s whiskers” or “23 Skidoo” to today’s sometimes spoiled collegiate body saying things like, “You motherfuckers! You don’t know who I am or who you’re fuckin’ with!” to cops who are arresting them for having too much to drink and becoming hostile. That behavior is BOUND to make grandma and grandpa proud, don’t ya know?
TROPIC OF CANCER was Henry Miller’s first book. Two sequels, of sorts, followed. There was BLACK SPRING and then the conclusion of this trilogy, TROPIC OF CAPRICORN (which is actually the first one I read before I even had my first copy of TROPIC OF CANCER). Guess TROPIC OF BLACK SPRING wasn’t really going to cut it as a book title. I ran across TROPIC OF CAPRICORN at a library a number of years ago and read it, but did manage to procure one for myself in a paperback edition sometime later.
Not long ago, I bought another Henry Miller book, THE DEVIL IN PARADISE. It’s a thin book, but I won’t soon read it because TROPIC OF CANCER will probably need to run its course through my brain completely before I tackle yet another Miller book.
There are folks who contend that TROPIC OF CANCER is full of “truth”. I think, however, that the book could be full of something else entirely, depending on one’s viewpoint.
I’m not sure, at least as of this reading, what “truth” I should be looking for here. If by “truth” these readers are suggesting that Henry is being truthful to his own observations and faithfully writing them down, then perhaps I’m not missing anything after all. If it’s something beyond that, I might purposefully look for it if I don’t wind up getting a headache in the search.
I am less inclined to look for the “truth” when I hear blow-hard literature buffs arguing about “what Miller meant” by this passage or that one. It’s too funny to me to see this stuff being taken so seriously.
This brings me to one of the main points I want to drive home, not so much about TROPIC OF CANCER itself, but about the debates that raged (and in some cases STILL rage) around it: the book is one of those literary “darlings” of the more or less phony intellectual set. There. I’ve said it. That’s my own version of the “truth”. I hope you will carry it with you and appreciate it for what it is.
Either people have read TROPIC OF CANCER because they felt they had to discuss how “brilliant” it is with their snobby friends or they haven’t read it at all but have pretended they did so that they can look smart to that same group of snobby friends. I don’t roll that way. I’ve read and am re-reading TROPIC OF CANCER simply because I want to and not to impress anyone. Wanting to read a book is really the only reason one should have for actually reading it. Well, unless you’re in college and are doing it for a grade.
The whole “Greatest Living Author” shtick and the Honorary Doctorate/Man of Letters thing probably got Henry laid quite a bit by 1960s college chicks. Didn’t matter that he was old enough to be their grandfathers because, damn it, he was an artiste! A poet! A spokesman for the common man! There more than likely would have been a certain status attained by any young, shapely college girl who hauled Henry’s ashes. Boy if you could brag that you banged Henry, you might have even been asked as a guest on “The Dick Cavett Show”.
TROPIC OF CANCER is not “genius” nor is reading it necessarily a life-changing experience unless, of course, one is a pretentious, would-be avant-garde nincompoop who lies and SAYS that it changed their life. I mean, come on, no one really buys into that, so they’re just fooling themselves.
For the historical value of TROPIC OF CANCER, I say go ahead and read it. Enjoy it (or not) for what it is. It’s funny at times (grossly so at certain points) and maybe, as I did, you can sometimes “see” Henry winking at you in his prose as he shares his inside jokes with the reader.