Tropic of Cancer by American writer Henry Miller was first published in Paris in 1934 by Obelisk Press and its subsequent release in the U.S. by Grove Press in 1961drew much public attention as its explicit sexual narrative led to an obscenity trial, one of many that caused discussion and interest in American laws on pornography.
Henry Miller was an American novelist and painter born on December 26, 1891 in New York, New York. During his first year of life, Miller's family moved to Brooklyn, where the whole of his childhood was spent. He is known in the literature world for creating a different style of novel-writing which was a combination of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association and mysticism.
In 1909, Miller graduated from high school and entered City College of New York where he stayed for only two months because he was not able to bear the academic routine. He soon went to work in a variety of jobs which included being a cab driver and a librarian.
His first work, Clipped Wings, came about after taking a job with Western Union telegraph service in 1920 where he first started writing. He realized the piece was a failure but was motivated to learn about writing. His second wife, June Edith Smith Mansfield who worked as a taxi driver, supported him and saved enough money for the two of them to travel to Europe in 1928 where he continued to work full time as a writer of more than 36 creative and analytical works.
While in Paris, Miller also befriended a woman who was to be a long time lover and occasional benefactor, Anais Nin. Their friendship is documented by Nin and her diaries and these stories were made famous in the 1992 feature film, Henry and June.
Miller's debut as a writer began with Tropic of Cancer, which still remains as Miller's most famous work. This novel is a fictional autobiography of Miller’s early years in Paris in the 1930s. It describes how an artist survives on the good will of others as he writes disturbing literature. Sex, misery and thoughtful observations are narrated with his daily routines.
Tropic of Cancer was included in Time magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. His other works, including Black Spring (1936) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), were smuggled into the U.S. and helped him build an underground reputation. His books opened doors to free discussion of sexual subjects in American writing from both legal and social restrictions. He also wrote travel memoirs and essays of literary criticism and analysis.
Tropic of Cancer was both originally published in France by Jack Kahane at Obelisk Press in the mid-thirties. When the works were brought to the U.S., they sparked a thirty year censorship debate that was eventually won by Miller.
The novels were published by Grove Press through the efforts of Barney Rosset. Miller’s lover and fellow writer Anais Nin, who wrote Tropic of Cancer ‘s preface, also helped by distributing the book at her Gotham Book Mart in defiance of censorship pressure.
Miller's other works were published in the U.S. soon after the publishing of Tropic of Cancer and were soon best sellers. Tropic of Cancer sold over two and a half million copies in the first two years of publication. During this time, the writer was “a legendary character, a kind of folk hero, the Paul Bunyan of literature, larger than life as exile, bohemian, and rebel, the great champion of freedom of expression and other lost causes" (Wickes 1974:170-192).
Tropic of Cancer is described as “totally incoherent; the page-long sentences unwinding like the ramblings of some drunken poet, wandering from meal to meal, drink to drink, from one sexual adventure to the next through the streets of Paris and Brooklyn” by Ewan Morrison, author of Ménage, the story of a modern ménage à trois inspired by Henry Miller and his wife June and Anais Nin.
He continued to say that the book’s surrealist stream-of-consciousness style, impossible mixture of social commentary and autobiographical rantings did not provide the tools required from so-called pornography. What came across was not the graphic sex or the experimental prose, but the spirit of an author who had made a total mess of his life and somehow from it, created an even bigger mess of a book.
Rambling, rambunctious, aimless, vain, flawed, with no methodology, a diary of a living catastrophe, it had more heart and vulnerability than any book read since, he said.