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Picture of Henry Miller, author of Tropic of Cancer; twentieth century American Literature

February 15, 1986
Henry Miller   (1891 - 1980)
Henry Miller's "Gob of Spit"
by Steve King

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On this day in 1986 the original manuscript of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was auctioned for $165,000, then a record price for a 20th century literary manuscript. This is Miller's first novel, written during and about his penniless, bohemian years in Paris in the early thirties. The diaries of his friend and lover, Anais Nin, inspired Miller to rewrite his conventionally-structured (and unsellable) autobiographical novel, Crazy Cock, in diary form. With this new approach, Miller said that he found his writer's voice: the new book went down on the back of the old book's pages at a madcap pace -- twenty, thirty, sometimes forty-five pages a day, the author's chain-smoking keeping up with the typewriter, Beethoven or jazz or an African laughing record at full volume on his victrola. One friend living in a nearby room at the Hotel Central said that those close to Miller at this time walked in his shadow, "and even his shadow was warm." After reading the manuscript, one editor said the same: "Miller is so alive nothing else can exist. It is like being close to the sun." When the book was published in 1934, some near him -- Nin, wife June, some of those companion to his picaresque adventures -- certainly felt burned by Miller's plagiarism, distortion or hyperbole. Others were outraged by the book's smirking male hedonism, or its egotism -- "What enrages me about people today," wrote Miller in a letter at the time, "is their willingness to die for things." The book's raw energy was indisputable, and even highbrows such as T. S. Eliot expressed admiration and wonder; Ezra Pound praised it as "a dirty book worth reading," the Miller male a type that would outlast "the weak-minded Woolf female."

Miller scoffed at the sex-and-ego reading of his book. He thought of it as "volcanic," elemental, revolutionary on deeper levels. Something of this is in his early titles -- "The Last Book" and the Whitmanesque, "I Sing the Equator" -- and in the first pages:
    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 corpse he had in mind was America: "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. . . ." Though his book was an underground classic for decades, Miller had to wait until the 60s for full fame at home. By this time the autobiographical approach that proved successful in the first book was credo -- "I don't use 'heroes,' and I don't write novels. I am the hero, and the book is myself" --and Miller was well on his way to the Big Sur sage, five-wives, nude-ping-pong-with-Playboy bunnies persona that dominated his last two decades, and brought the record manuscript price.

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Related authors:  Anais Nin, Charles Bukowski, Iris Murdoch, Lawrence Durrell, Saul Bellow
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