FREDERICK TURNER: RENEGADE. HENRY MILLER AND THE MAKING OF TROPIC OF CANCER. Yale Icons of America Series.
What happens when the unreliable narrator turns out to be the cultural critic?
What we write about fiction is never an objective response to a text; it is always part of a bigger myth-making – the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves. That story changes. George Orwell, writing in 1940 about Henry Miller, has very different preoccupations to Kate Millet writing about Miller in 1970. Orwell doesn’t notice that Miller-women are all ‘cunts.’ In fact, his long essay, Inside a Whale, does not mention women at all. Millet does notice that half the world has been billeted to the whorehouse, and wonders what this tells us about both Henry Miller and the psyche and sexuality of the American male.
Norman Mailer needed Miller to be like Shakespeare (P56) (this is plain wrong but the need is interesting), Erica Jong wanted to be Athene to Miller’s Zeus– born straight out of his head and saving him from the Feminist Furies in her book The Devil at Large (1993)
And now? It is fifty years since Tropic of Cancer was published in the USA by Grove Press. First published in Paris in 1934 by Obelisk, a soft-porn imprint, it had been banned as obscene in the USA until a landmark legal victory overturned the ban, allowing Grove to print legally in 1961. (P5). The book became an instant bestseller and Henry Miller stood as the priapic prophet of sexual freedom.
Frederick Turner’s aim is to explain how Tropic of Cancer came to be written, came to be banned, and came to be an American Classic.
Turner tells a good story. Some of it we know: Hopeless Henry, the literary failure nearing forty, is packed off to Paris in 1930 by his wife June, now tired of supporting him via low-paid jobs and selling her body. In Paris he becomes Hungry Henry, still living off his wife’s erratic hand-outs wired to the American Express office. He sleeps on office floors or in windowless hotel rooms.
He freefalls, hits the bottom and remakes himself as Heroic Henry who has the courage to say ‘Fuck Everything’ (p3) and write a great book. The book is so great that it takes the world nearly thirty years to face up to it.
The Miller story told this way beats in time with the story at the heart of America’s self-image: Can-do/ Rags to Riches/ Boy Makes Good. That Miller was mostly an unemployed and unemployable drop-out is an odds with the Puritan New World work ethic, but in line with America’s pioneering frontiersman mythology where the fast-talking huckster has a six-shooter mouth.
Turner cleverly places Miller in a line of American folklore heroes, real and invented, like Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Like Huck Finn, Miller the man wants to avoid growing up. (67). Like Mark Twain, Miller the writer wants the flavour and feel of ‘brawlers, outlaws, gamblers, whores.’ (36).
Turner makes the point that while it took America more than sixty years to catch up with Walt Whitman, Twain’s impact was immediate. ‘Here was America talking – not writing –in the outsized colourful monologue mode that had been a century and more in the making.’ (p46)
Turner repositions Miller alongside Whitman and Twain as an innovator who is anti-literature, not because he is a philistine but because the new world that is America needs a new literature. This must be vivid not refined, made on the docksides and in the sweatshops, not in the study or the university.
Turner shows us Miller the German immigrant Brooklyn boy, dragged to work in his father’s failing tailoring business, entertaining himself at the burlesques at night, where the bawdy tawdry comic and cruel sexualised humour is as alive and real to Miller as the riverbank was to Twain and the workmen stripped to the waist were to Whitman.
When Miller sailed for Paris he had a copy of Leaves of Grass in his luggage. (P121)
He left behind him an ex-wife and small daughter for whom he had made no provision, and a current wife, June, who was his lover, muse and banker, until Anais Nin in Paris was able to take over those essential roles.
Turner never troubles himself or the reader with questions about Miller’s emotional and financial dependency on women. Miller was obsessed with masculinity but felt no need to support himself or the women in his life. Turner sympathises with the Miller who must sell his well-cut suits on the streets of Paris for a fraction of their worth (123), but is indifferent to the fact that June was selling her body on his behalf.
Indeed, Turner tells us that Miller had to endure ‘the most awful humiliation a man might suffer’ (101). This, presumably, is June’s lesbian affair, one she brought home to their apartment, so much so that Miller wrote a novel, Lovely Lesbians, one of his lifelong rants against women, written around the same time as Moloch, his rant against Jews.
Miller realised with these failure novels that hatred alone was not enough to sustain a work of fiction. (112) Miller had plenty of hatred, Jews, foreigners, and especially towards America, the new-found land that had spoiled itself and a once-in-a-species opportunity to really begin again.(P15)
For Miller, America was ‘more mercenary than the meanest whore.’ (P8) This is an ugly image, and while it is certainly true of Miller’s mind, it is indicative of Turner’s own unconscious thinking. But it usefully presents us with the fused object of Miller’s hatred – the body politic of America will be worked over and revenged through the body of Woman.
Miller had attended political meetings as a young man but he was uninterested in political activism – and when war broke out in 1939 he left Paris to return to America. Not for him the heroics of Resistance. Yet his lifelong pose was as a warrior fighting with homemade weapons against an indifferent crushing industrial machine where nothing mattered but profit and where everything was for sale.
It never occurred to him that no matter how poor a man is, he can always buy a poorer woman for sex. It does not occur to Frederick Turner either, who calls Miller throughout a ‘sexual adventurer.’ This sounds randy and swashbuckling and hides the economic reality of prostitution. Miller the renegade wanted his body slaves like any other capitalist – and as cheaply as possible. When he could not pay, Miller the man and Miller the fictional creation work out how to cheat women with romance. What they cannot buy they steal. No connection is made between woman as commodity and the ‘slaughterhouse’ (84) of capitalism that Miller hates.
Turner loves Miller’s ‘war-whoop’ against modern industrial America. Hope is hopeless but the lone voice of the prophet speaks out like a Jeremiah among the brothels. Confusingly, Turner wants us to believe in both the war-whoop and Miller’s Buddhist-like acceptance of the world as it is – doomed.
Turner’s last chapter rapture over Miller’s achievement is to suggest that Cancer is really a book about love. It is – but the love never gets further than self-love. ‘Le bel aujord’hui’ (213) has only room for the hero – but that is the myth of the solitary unknowable genius that men (and I mean men) invest in so heavily.
There are many lost opportunities in Frederick Turner’s book. His assertion that Cancer has gone from banned book to a classic that tells us ‘who we are’, (p6) seems unaware of the reasonable objection that ‘we’ cannot include women, unless that woman is prepared to see herself as a half-witted hole – a piece of tail. ( In his extensive bibliography Kate Millet’s essay is not listed)
There is so much that could be written about Tropic of Cancer and the sexual revolution. The overturning of Obscenity laws in the USA and the UK and the defiant rise of the porn industry is part of the extraordinary 1960’S zeitgeist, but also part of a new sex war.
Cancer is published around the same time as the Pill is made legal (1960) and Valium hits the market (1961). Drugs that rendered women more sexually available and more docile were in the service of the 60’s sexual revolution, which was not about equality for women. Women would have to claim that for themselves. Miller was a useful weapon– something to drop into the water supply – against the likes of Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique 1960) and a very different kind of war whoop.
Frederick Turner’s book has little political or social background, which will make it hard for some readers to place Miller in his own time – and it seems to me that if a central part of your myth-making is to place a writer far ahead of his time, we had better know something about his actual world – the world of the 1930’s in Paris, and the world of the 1960’s in America. In Paris, for instance, brothels were legal but women couldn’t vote – the exact reverse of the America Miller had left behind.
There is beauty as well as hatred in Cancer and it deserves its place on the shelf. Yet the central question it poses was stupidly buried under censorship in the 1930’s, and gleefully swept aside in the permissiveness of the 1960’s. Kate Millet asked the question in the 1970’s, but the effort to ignore it is prodigious. A new round of myth-making is ignoring it once more: The question is not art versus pornography or sexuality versus censorship or any question about achievement. The question is: Why do men revel in the degradation of women?