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Tropic of Cancer | Context


Paris during the Depression

The Paris Henry Miller portrays in Tropic of Cancer suffered from the effects of the Great Depression, a worldwide economic downturn with high unemployment from 1929–39. Still, Paris offered an attractive alternative to the United States during the depression, where unemployment led to breadlines, soup kitchens, and homelessness. For Miller the grind of trying to find and keep work in America left no time or emotional space for writing, while living in Paris opened him up to artistic expression.

Many other artists, writers, and musicians flocked to Paris from all over the world to experience the exuberant lifestyle and openness that defined the city after the end of World War I. The hunger, infestations of insects, and other horrors of poverty Miller describes in his novel were realities for many people—transplants and citizens alike—in Paris during this period. However, other famous American writers who roamed Paris for inspiration in the 1920s, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein, lived comparatively well.

Photographers like American Philippe Halsman and French-Hungarian Brassaï captured the romance of jazz clubs, bistros, and other nightlife in Paris. Brassaï collaborated with Miller on a novella called Quiet Days in Clichy (1956) to portray both Parisians' desperate search for fun at all costs and the isolation this pursuit of excess created. The title references Place de Clichy, a neighborhood in Paris, where four districts meet. Like Tropic of Cancer, the novella is based on Henry Miller's experiences as an American expatriate, or an American living in another country, in Paris. He was surrounded by other artists and writers trying to wring as much joy from the city as they could, despite a lack of funds.

Sexual Mores of the 1920s and 1930s

In America of the 1920s and 1930s, prostitution was illegal. But in France during this time, prostitution was an accepted part of life, especially in cities. It was heavily regulated to ensure the health and safety of prostitutes and their customers. The French also viewed sex as a pleasurable activity rather than as an act reserved for the marital bed. In America the relatively permissive sexual culture of the Roaring Twenties had ended with the stock market crash of 1929. In New York City, for instance, laws were described by one legal scholar as defending "conventional Victorian morality" to prevent "disorder and anarchy" until the 1940s.

Henry Miller's extremely active sex life in Paris, therefore, was not unusual. In particular artists and writers in Paris frequently landed in each other's beds and had multiple affairs as part of their quest for artistic and personal freedom.

Book Banning and Obscenity Laws

When Tropic of Cancer came out in 1934, its contents were labeled obscene because of the sexually graphic descriptions in the novel, including mention of sex with animals, as well as the use of profanity. The book could not be published in the United States until 1961 because of obscenity laws. However, obscenity laws were not straightforward, especially concerning the distinction between art and pornography. Lawyers argued on both sides about the increased tendency at the beginning of the 20th century to ban books based on nudity and material of a sexual nature. In his article "Unprintable," published in The Atlantic in 1923, Stuart Sherman remarks, "It has perhaps never been true in Europe, it is no longer true in America, that it is easy to distinguish art from pornography." Sherman argued the rules to determine obscenity were so broad they could easily take the Bible out of circulation.

Until 1961, when Grove Press published Tropic of Cancer, the only available copies of Tropic of Cancer in America were those that had been smuggled in. Its American publication sparked over 50 criminal cases against bookstores that sold the controversial volume. In 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the book was not obscene because it had serious artistic and literary merit. It could, therefore, be freely distributed and sold in the United States. This landmark ruling opened the door for other writers to express themselves freely without censorship. Miller's willingness to say anything inspired American writers Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, and Erica Jong to publish works that included sexually explicit subject matter.

Modernism and Surrealism

Modernist literature shares certain characteristics, including use of the technique called stream of consciousness. Tropic of Cancer, like the work of modernists James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, relies heavily on this technique of providing interior monologue without the use of quotation marks or a narrative filter. Henry Miller's thoughts spew forth on the page spontaneously as he contemplates women, sex, friends and acquaintances, and artistic and sexual freedom.

Miller uses stream of consciousness deliberately to symbolize many of the aspects of Henry's life in Paris. Henry himself is nomadic, wandering in an often-disconnected way through Paris's urban flow, as his thoughts and impressions cascade through his mind. This sense of flow feels to him like true freedom, and he values freedom above all. The pervasive imagery of bodily fluids, such as semen, vomit, and sweat, act as reminders of what Henry considers truths of the human body and reflect this sense of a world in constant flux.

Modernist writing also includes a rejection of formal styles. In Tropic of Cancer the plotting is anecdotal and impressionistic. In one paragraph Henry may reflect on a recent sexual encounter. In the next he may talk about writing, or one of his friends, or a street he recently walked down, or the River Seine, or how the "world is a cancer eating itself away." There may be loose connections, recurring characters, or even a rough narrative structure, but the overall sense is of riding a shifting current of words and associations.

The character Henry says he no longer bothers to keep track of the date, as if his life simply flows like a raging current: "the hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness." He wants to write everything down as it happens in the moment, but his life rolls along so fast he has only the chance to make "fragmentary notes." As literary critic James M. Decker has noted, the book's "lack of plot" was cited as proof of the book's pornographic status in several of its obscenity trials. Miller himself described the book in an interview as "the story of how I'm writing [the] book."

Tropic of Cancer is also influenced by surrealism as outlined in the "Manifesto of Surrealism," a long essay written by poet André Breton in 1924. The literary device attempts to integrate imagination and reality by juxtaposing (placing side by side) images that don't belong together. For Miller, what he writes doesn't have to make sense or be realistic, an element of surrealism. In fact, Breton encourages surrealist writers to write "false novels," or works that do not stick to the characteristics of any predefined genre.

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