Shock value gone from Tropic of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer is the first of Henry Miller’s banned books of the 1930s to make landfall legally in the US, where its notoriety propelled it to number 5 on the 1961 bestseller list.

The book is presented as a memoir of an unnamed American ex-patriot  in Paris in the years between the wars. He’s does some writing, some proofreading, and some teaching, but mostly he panhandles, boozes, and whores.

Millers’ narrator says the book is a “prolonged insult” to traditional values, but it won’t insult readers today. The “dirty words” that got the novel canned are simply part of Miller’s  reportage. Today you’d hear the same language used with more enthusiasm in a middle school cafeteria, though Miller uses the terms with more precision than preteens.

The Tropic of Cancer has about as much story line as a grocery list. It is equally short on characterization.

There’s no denying Miller can write. The problem is that he nothing to say to today’s readers. Little shocks readers today, and too many other writers have shown the decay in our society in more interesting stories.

Bypass the Tropic of Cancer for pleasanter climes.

The Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
Grove Press, 1961
1961 #6
321 pages
My grade: C

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Published by

Linda G. Aragoni

I make big ideas simple for learners. In eight sentences, 34 words, I taught teens and adults to write competently. Now I'm writing guides to turn willing volunteers into great nursing home visitors.

2 thoughts on “Shock value gone from Tropic of Cancer

  1. To say Miller no longer inspires because modern readers are no longer titillated by naughty words misses the point of the writer – and literature – entirely.

    In “Cancer,” and is other books, such as “Capricorn,” “Big Sur and the Oranges of Heironymous Bosh,” and the “Air Conditioned Nightmare,” Miller shows there are other ways to live beyond the drudgery of modern life.

    He showed a new path, and in this increasingly commoditized and corporatized world, he’s more relevant than ever.


    1. Miller may have shown other ways to live and a new path, but what he shows in Tropic of Cancer didn’t strike me as being better. That may be because I am not considering a writer’s total output, but just the book I’m reviewing.

      Also, my goal is to see what vintage bestsellers are still entertaining for today’s readers. I’m happy to find something that’s more than entertainment, but if a novel that’s 50 or more years old still resonates, I think that’s pretty good.


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