I was prompted to write the above letter to The New York Times after reading Jeanette Winterson's review of Renegade: Henry Miller and the Writing of the Tropic of Cancer by Robert Frances. You can read her review by clicking here. And you can read the various letters to the editor published in reply (my own and others) by clicking here.
Winterson misses the point about Miller and Tropic of Cancer. She appears to have no comprehension of the times in which it was written and therefore is unaware of its historical and moral significance.
I explained something of that significance in my original letter to The New York Times, but they prefer Tweet-length letters and so cut important passages referring to Miller in the context of Graham Greene, Louis Ferdinand Céline and Elias Canetti - and the atmosphere that poisoned and oppressed the Europe they knew. The uncut version of my letter is given below.
Jeanette Winterson, who long ago decided to be happy rather than normal, seems to hate Henry Miller because he made the same decision and justified it by calling himself an artist. That is how Tropic of Cancer begins. Miller says he is an artist and then dances about on the pages in the most manic and delightful way. Writer, dancer, singer. ‘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. ... This then is a song. I am singing.’
I like Miller because of that all-singing-and-dancing act. It makes me laugh. As it happens I do not recall a single sexual episode in the book, but if he had a dozen women upside down or in the gutter or on slabs, good for him, as long as he was singing. I buy the artist as free-to-do-what-he-likes not as a principle but when he proves himself a better singer and dancer than a social worker.
Winterson faults Turner for offering too little social and political background and then announces the sort of background she has in mind, brothels, women’s suffrage, the pill. In fact Miller was one of the very few artists of his times who knew what to say about the all transcending horrors of his moment.
If I were introducing anyone to the great dark cloud lowering over the world in the early 1930s I would have them read four books, Graham Greene's Stamboul Train (1932), Louis Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Elias Canetti's Auto da Fé (1935), and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934).
Greene called Stamboul Train an entertainment; it is a pleasant introduction to the disease of antisemitism that had overtaken the whole of continental Europe well before Hitler was elected and made it official policy. Journey to the End of the Night is a wonderful novel, a joyous vicious novel of ugliness and hatred, the ugliness and hatred having taken possession of Céline himself, though he is exculpated by the energy and brilliance of his book which does show you in magnificent prose how repellent the times could be. Canetti’s Auto da Fé is pure disgust and horror, locked in claustrophobia.
Greene the Englishman is cool and sane and observes clearly and lightly. But Céline the Frenchman and Canetti the Bulgarian in Vienna are defeated. Their books are about the decomposition of the world of which they are a part; they feel the gangrene at work within themselves. They write out of defeat; they offer no way out.
Miller, the late-arriving American in Paris, could have written a book of utter degradation in keeping with the times, but instead he sings. It is quite beautiful; the world is hideous and going down the drain, and Miller sings. The all-American Miller did not choose death; he wrote an outrageous American novel full of energy, optimism and laughs. That is what is so good about Henry Miller. That is why Tropic of Cancer is morally and historically an important book.