8. The Last Book
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
Henry Miller lived and wrote in America for nearly forty-one years after his repatriation. But whatever the similarities between his work before and after Tropic of Capricorn, and there are many, Miller's "auto-novels" and essays never again displayed the preoccupation with formal innovation, the experimentation with temporal and spatial discontinuity, that had been the strategic core of his effort to develop a modernist narrative capable of claiming the legacy of the Novel. The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), relating Miller's adventures in Greece, adheres closely to the travel genre: the story begins with a decision to "take a long vacation," and musingly proceeds from sight to sight, encounter to encounter, ending with an appended farewell letter posted by the host after the traveler's departure. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957), one of the best of Miller's later writings, so deviates from the cultivated "confusion" of the Paris novels as to open with two short chapters entitled "Chronological" and "Topological," telling how Miller came to live at Big Sur and laying out the human, geological, and natural history of the place. The abrupt change indicates not so much a redirection of Miller's formal efforts as a repudiation of formal innovation per se. The Colossus of Maroussi mimics Count Hugo Keyserling's The Travel Diary of a Philosopher which Miller read while sailing to Corfu. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch is Miller's Walden. And The Rosy Crucifixion pays homage to Frank Harris' My Life and Loves in its matter of fact prose style and unrelenting narration of the smallest details of the author's experience simply because they are his experience. What Harris wrote of My Life and Loves, Miller might have written of The Rosy Crucifixion: "I want [the reader] to meet a thousand instincts and confused desires, and gradually come to know me better than he knows anyone else who has given a record of himself in any literature." After Tropic of Capricorn Miller found his novel forms ready-made, much as he had once wholeheartedly adopted Dreiser's Twelve Men as the model for his first effort, "Clipped Wings." In effect, Henry Miller, who had made himself over into a "experimental" modern novelist upon his arrival in Paris, made himself over into yet another kind of writer for his return to the United States. The writer Miller became with his repatriation lies beyond the scope of this essay, but the transformation illuminates Tropic of Capricorn in double aspect--as the last book of a novelist who sought to shape the course of the modern novel and the first book of a writer whose career as a cultural hero/villain cannot be encompassed by a study of the discourse of the novel.
With the scattering of the expatriate community, Miller lost interest in the aesthetic debates which had animated his effort to "rival, or excel, the last chapter of Ulysses, without being 'imitative.'" He effectively abandoned the discourse of the Modern Novel. More concretely, he abandoned a specific, highly polemical modern novel: Tropic of Capricorn is an unfinished work. The notes Miller carried when he first fled Paris in September 1938 projected a multi-volume "Tropic of Capricorn" covering his life in New York with his second wife June--the "Mona" of Tropic of Cancer and "Mara" of Tropic of Capricorn." Through this multi-volume novel Miller would finally tell the story he had come to Paris to tell, the story he first conceived in 1927 and had variously attempted in the "Tony Bring" manuscript and "Crazy Cock," only to set it aside in 1930 in order that he might meet the challenge of modernist aesthetics. During those early years in Paris, searching for a reply to the "Order, and Myth" of Ulysses, Miller considered "Tropic of Capricorn" an appropriately combative title for his first flowing, modernist narrative, having noted that "Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water" admired water for "its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: [...] its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the most precious metals[....]" But while writing, Miller decided upon "Tropic of Cancer," reserving "Tropic of Capricorn" for the story of his life in New York. Only through a history of his birth as a modern novelist could Miller truly "rival, or excel," the man who had written A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as well as Ulysses. Reconceived in light of Tropic of Cancer's narrative technique, the long deferred, multi-volume "Tropic of Capricorn" would tell the story Miller had come to Paris to tell and, most crucially, complete the modernist polemic begun in Tropic of Cancer. The manuscript Miller left with Jack Kahane in September, 1938, published the next year by Obelisk Press as Tropic of Capricorn, with a dedication "TO HER" and the subtitle "On the Ovarian Trolley," represented only the first installment of this larger project. Miller never resumed this "Tropic of Capricorn."