They never knew what to do with Henry Miller, author of both the famously banned Tropic books, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn as well as Black Spring, a Tropic book in all but title. They still don’t.
Go into any well-stocked bookstore or check out online sellers. You will find both Tropic books in the Fiction section, which is fine, except they’re not, not exactly. They are both fiction and nonfiction, but mostly nonfiction. Miller, writing in the first person, gives his main character ‘Henry’ as his name.
Henry Miller invented a genre with which no one has done as well, although Saul Bellow comes close.
Autobiographical fiction, which Henry Miller invented on the fly, is so heavy with facts and real experiences that adding imagination affects the story as a sort of essayist’s confessional about his own life, which sails along with intermittent explosions into surreal fantasies about sex, the human condition and culture.
Dead for over thirty years now, had it not been for his books becoming famous as ‘dirty books’ and banned in the United States for decades after their publication, Henry Miller would not be much remembered now. He was too intellectual, too surreal and too raw for most readers to consider, but the censors, fortunately, helped make him famous. And rich.
What makes Henry Miller/s novels, especially Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, so fascinating his that he was a astonishing observer of himself and the world around him and, with rare exceptions, unhesitant to write about all of it. He sauced it all with fiction, but his stories of rambling through Paris and Brooklyn, hitting up friends and strangers for money, and coming of age in Brooklyn rest on a bed of varifiable fact and experience.
It didn’t hurt that both of his Tropic novels were written at least ten years after the stories had a chance to ripen and blossom as his writing skills soared on wings of genius.
His literary dexterity seemed acrobatic as his sexual escapades are described in detail as romps and adventures that sometimes were chaotically funny. His own experiences, so raw, complex and passionate in the telling, escaped pornography by exposing truths most Americans of the time refused to accept and by their launching flights of transcendental fantasy that carried sex into spiritual realms it had little chance to visit otherwise.
Henry Miller’s pursuit of women with his friends and their conversations about them are almost certainly based on real events, although a few of them and their details prove to be eye-rollers of the locker room bragging variety. Had all of it been real, he’d have had no time for the routine middle class life he reluctantly describes. Much of Tropic of Capricorn involves domestic life with his first wife, Beatrice, their child, and a regular working stiff routine in management with Western Union, much as Tropic of Cancer (and Sexus, later) includes his second wife, June, and Paris.
Henry Miller’s struggles with middle class American life are the heart of Tropic of Capricorn. Born in Manhattan, but spending his childhood in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, he married conventionally, worked ‘a regular job’ and supported his wife and child in Brooklyn Heigths, an upscale neighborhood. His adoption of an ordinary life started after he tried to break free, traveling on foot to the American south and to California, throwing away his background only to resume it back where he started.
His tales of this period in his life, in the years just before meeting June and leaving for Paris the first time, are described with a mix of affection and disgust. His affection is for all the women as well as his motley collection of pals of every stripe, and his disgust is targeted at the pressures that, for years, kept a kept a lid on his literary genius.
In his books, Henry Miller is at pains to discredit his first marriage and parenthood. Throughout Tropic of Capricorn, he never mentions the Beatrice character by any name, but simply as ‘the wife,’ an anomoly in the books. Their daughter is ‘the kid,’ and he only exposes her gender when unavoidable as he describes a sexual encounter with one of her babysitters. This babysitter, the tragic Valeska, is helping out while Miller’s wife recovers from another in a series of abortions.
This apparent erasure of Beatrice as an individual was, in my mind, a loving gesture. He never even explains how they met and married, although cetainly a man like Miller would not make commitments like that without real passions. I believe he deliberately tried to give his wife and daughter some cover, not making them easily recognizable in real life as he wound fiction around them.
His details about other, less relevant characters shows that he had few qualms about exposing himself, them or his pursuits.
Finally, his disgust with his job and his life at the time, after meeting June, led him to a radical lifestyle change and a move to Paris, even though he was far from fluent in French.
In another odd twist, he returns to an America he disparages lavishly, living for nearly forty years of his eighty-two in California. He actually spent less than twenty rambling around Paris as the rebel and sexual adventurer we came to know as Henry Miller in the Tropic triology.
It’s good he had that Paris time. Without it, considering the heavy censorship muffling art in America, we would not have Henry Miller, the radical thinker and experimental writer, the attributes of which, I hope, sustain him as a literary giant long after his sex life, so thoughtfully recorded and re-imagined, has been rendered ordinary from over-exposure.