Lee Sandlin     Squibs    Essays    Books    Home 

In Praise of the Gross

Making a case that it was the insolent tone of "Tropic of Cancer" - more than the now tame sex scenes - that incited the book-banners.

Book review, Feb. 2, 2012

"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 to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty ... what you will." Readers of a certain age will recognize this as the exordium to Henry Miller's once-famous act of literary vandalism, "Tropic of Cancer." If it puts you in a nostalgic mood, you should immediately obtain Frederick Turner's "Renegade" – an entertaining and skillful evocation of the time when Miller's memoir of bottom-feeding American expats in Paris was known as the dirtiest book in the world.

Mr. Turner's study offers a biographical sketch of Miller and tells us how this kid from Brooklyn came to be hanging out in 1930s Paris in the first place. But his main interest is in how (80 years after it was written, 50 years after its first American publication) "Tropic" holds up. Not surprisingly, his answer is: Pretty well. He thinks that it's an established classic and that Miller can now fairly be described as a major writer, "maybe even a great one." He is an enthusiast for Miller's squalid, obscene and exuberant prose style and makes a convincing case that it's the book's insolent tone – glorifying a life spent in deadbeat idleness, cadging drinks, bumming smokes, hustling for free meals and trying to scour up enough pocket change to visit brothels – even more than the now rather tame sex scenes that really incited the censors and book-banners.

Mr. Turner has an even grander critical agenda, though. His study is one of a series from Yale University Press called "Icons of America" (previous icons have included the Statue of Liberty, Fred Astaire and the hamburger), and the driving purpose of "Renegade" is to situate "Tropic" within what Mr. Turner calls "a strong, colorful countervailing tradition of cranks, crooks, tall-talkers, hucksters, adventurers, outlaws and utopian dreamers that had its roots deep in the American experience." He talks a good game about everything from Brooklyn burlesque shows to Mississippi River folklore. But this is just where he runs into trouble, trying to cover far too much turf at warp speed (it's only a 200-page book, and he still takes the story all the way back to Columbus).

Worse, he is continually straining with all-too-obvious desperation to find someplace where Miller fits in. Hold on tight: "But what could the Concord sage have known of the news off the boat when that boat was a keelboat or a broadhorn docking at the noisome slum of Natchez-under-the-Hill or New Orleans where some eighty years later a precocious Jelly Roll Morton was learning the street songs that would ultimately scorch the stately décor of the Library of Congress's Coolidge Chamber Music Auditorium when he recorded them for Alan Lomax? Henry Miller would have loved this stuff."

This frantic passage is Mr. Turner reflecting on Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous exhortation to American poets to ignore classical European literature and draw instead from "the ballad in the street" and "the news of the boat."

The most painful part of this grotesque pileup is not that it's gibberish. It's that once you work out what it means, you realize that it's false. Miller would not have "loved this stuff" – whatever stuff Mr. Turner might be thinking about. Miller knew essentially nothing of Mr. Turner's countervailing tradition, and he would have despised it if he did. He loathed everything about American culture, high and low. Mr. Turner himself concedes as much: During the writing of "Tropic," he notes, Miller's hatred of America "had risen to hysterical proportions."

The sad truth is that Miller looked for inspiration from exactly those European sophisticates that Emerson warned Americans against. His anti-art provocations, his rages against the bourgeoisie and the wilder flights of his rhetoric into zones of rapturously menacing nonsense were all straight from the Parisian surrealists of the 1920s and their forebears. The specific model for "Tropic," Miller said (he was always generous about giving credit), was the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun's strange and fierce novel "Hunger" (1890), about a penniless writer wandering the streets of Oslo. There is also Rilke's "Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" (1910), another monologue by a lonely expat intellectual in Paris, which "Tropic" so closely resembles that at times it seems like a kind of demonic dopplegänger, a foul-mouthed Hyde to Rilke's hyper-prissy Jekyll.

But that's just what's so odd about Miller: For all his outrageousness, what he wanted was to be assimilated into the high-art tradition. A few years ago, the Library of America put out a huge anthology called "Americans in Paris," and Miller turned up in it as just one more literary tourist, perfectly at ease in the company of Henry Adams and Edith Wharton. Now that's the stuff Miller really would have loved. The books he wrote after "Tropic" – which even Mr. Turner concedes are mostly terrible – show him eager to pose as a great sage, laying down the law about everything from the soul of Greek culture to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. They make "Tropic's" gibes against art seem like the sour grapes of the kid longing to get through the clubhouse door.

And yet "Tropic" holds up. Its pages still crackle with freakish energy. Mr. Turner suggests convincingly that Miller's life in Paris was objectively wretched and that his defiant proclamations of happiness in "Tropic" were secretly fueled by misery and rage. No matter: From them, Miller achieved a unique hymn in praise of the gross, the irresponsible and the truant. Frederick Turner is surely right to call it profoundly and enduringly American.

This article appeared Feb. 2, 2012, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of 'Tropic of Cancer' by Frederick Turner (Yale, 244 pages, $24.95)