This Day In Literary History
On February 15th, 1986, the original, typewritten manuscript of Tropic of Cancer, the classic debut novel of the legendary American writer Henry Miller, was sold at auction for $165,000 - then a record price for a 20th century manuscript and the equivalent of about $361,000 in today's money.
At the time Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer - the novel was first published in 1934 - he had been living in Paris, having tired of his American homeland. He had first visited Paris in 1928, along with his wife, June. By 1931, he had emigrated and found work as a proofreader for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
Miller's first novel, Clipped Wings was never published. His second, Moloch: or, This Gentile World would be published posthumously, though he had abandoned it, calling it "utterly false." He was searching for a new literary direction.
His third attempt at writing a novel, Crazy Cock, though different from the first two, was going nowhere. Written in a conventional format, albeit with some graphic sexual content, Miller knew it would never sell. (It too would be published posthumously.)
Miller knew his writing was missing something, but what? Taking advantage of the highly charged creative atmosphere of Paris, he joined in the writing community and struck up friendships with fellow authors.
When he met legendary French writer Anaïs Nin, she immediately recognized his talent. She became his close friend and lover, and let him read her now famous diaries. Her prose was a revelation to him. He needed that kind of passion and poetry in his writing.
Excited, Miller abandoned Crazy Cock and set about writing a new novel. The muse seized him by the throat and wouldn't let go; as his fingers flew about the keys of his typewriter, he chain-smoked and listened to the jazz or Beethoven that blared from his Victrola.
He would write as many as 20, 30, or even 45 pages a day. When he completed the manuscript, he and Anaïs Nin both knew he had written something special - a novel that would revolutionize literature as the world knew it and probably land its author in jail for obscenity.
Miller was determined to get his new novel, Tropic of Cancer, published. One editor said of him, "Miller is so alive nothing else can exist. It is like being close to the sun."
The novel was brilliant, but the graphic sexual content, which Miller refused to censor, made it unpublishable. Finally, in 1934, Obelisk Press, an English language publishing house in Paris, published Tropic of Cancer unexpurgated.
Miller's fellow Americans would have to wait over 30 years for the novel to be legally published in the United States - it was banned as obscene until the Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 1964, in the case of Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein.
Grove would also win the legal right to publish the original, uncensored versions of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, William Burroughs' classic novel, Naked Lunch, and Howl and Other Poems, the classic poetry collection by Allen Ginsberg.
Tropic of Cancer was a novel in the form of a memoir. Combining fiction with autobiography, the novel featured a narrative that alternated between conventional and experimental, combining sober accounts with dazzling stream of consciousness reflections.
Funny, sad, joyous, and mad, passionate and poetic, the novel is rightfully recognized as a masterpiece. In the opening pages, Miller described the book this way:
It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. 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 it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants of God, Man, Destiny, Time, Beauty... what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse...
One of Miller's dirty corpses was that of his homeland, America. Predicting the uproar over the novel's graphic sexual content, he said:
America will call me the lowest of the low when they see my Cancer. What a laugh I'll have when they begin to spit and fume. I hope they'll learn something about death and futility, about hope, etc. I won't give them a fucking leg to stand on...
Henry Miller was no pornographer; he didn't write about sex to arouse his readers, he simply and honestly celebrated his sexual life. In his classic novella-length essay, The World of Sex (1940), he explained that the sex in his writings was the product of the libertine philosophy that he believed in and based his life on.
He criticized the American "values" that condemned sex as sinful. Instead of openly and honestly accepting and embracing something as wholesome and beautiful as sex, Americans would rather decry it as obscene, leaving the only outlet for sexual expression to smut peddlers.
Miller followed Tropic of Cancer with many more classic novels, including Black Spring (1936), Tropic of Capricorn (1939), and his famous Rosy Crucifixion trilogy - Sexus (1949), Plexus (1953), and Nexus (1960). He died in 1980 at the age of 88.
Quote Of The Day
“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” - Henry Miller
Today's video features a reading from Henry Miller's classic novel, Tropic of Cancer. Enjoy!