3. Miller and the Emerging Modernist Canon
Emerson and Whitman
The particular autobiographical mode upon which Miller settled--the temporally digressive, first-person narrative style of Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn--was crucial to this process of literary-historical revelation as Miller understood it. His previous novelistic efforts in New York were autobiographically based: the twelve messengers of "Clipped Wings" were individuals whose lives had crossed Miller's, "Dion Moloch" and "Tony Bring" were Miller personae. But these early efforts were written in the third person and presented chronologically, after the fashion of the realists and naturalists Miller then admired. When he later wrote of the "chain of one's life" as "but starting points along the path of self-discovery," it was in the double sense of past events as raw material and of his early literary efforts as the starting point for his later digressive narratives. The novels circulating in Paris, especially Ulysses, suggested the alternative of autobiographical "stream of consciousness," but Miller instead adopted conversation and storytelling as his mode of revealing the relation between past and present. In conversation he had already demonstrated to his satisfaction an ability to joust with his new-found, formally educated Modernist mentors, drawing upon his Brooklyn past and eclectic education to out-maneuver Fraenkel's Modernist weltanschauung as he could not within the fictive forms he had been using. The effort to consolidate this advantage triggered a reconsideration of autobiographical "self-discovery," and with it a reevaluation of the American Romantic idols of his youth.
Emerson and Whitman were the earliest idols of Miller's adult life and the only "symbolists of the self" with whom he was conversant when he decided to use his ability as a raconteur to challenge the imagistic architecture of Modernist symbolism. The year he spent reading Emerson's and Whitman's works with Benjamin Fay Mills, the year he would have finished college had he stayed that course, marked the beginning of the literary odyssey that led to Paris eighteen years later. Everywhere Tropic of Cancer bears the marks of a thorough reconsideration of these earliest idols. On his second reading Miller drew a distinction, as he had not when reading under Benjamin Fay Mills, between Emerson as a Boston Brahmin and Whitman as another "boy from Brooklyn." The distinction is "forced," but this is to say only that it serves Miller's novelistic purposes, rather than any "disinterested" critical ends. The Emerson who wrote "Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim" is invisible in Tropic of Cancer. Emerson's "lecture" on "Power" informs the narrative of Tropic of Cancer, but the lesson is attributed to Whitman. Correspondingly, Whitman the transcendental poet disappears, or, more subtly, is memorialized as irrelevant to the novelistic present:
In Whitman the whole American scene comes to life, her past and her future, her birth and her death. Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machine, to the robots. He was the Poet of the Body and the Soul, Whitman. The first and the last poet. He is almost undecipherable today, a monument covered with hieroglyphs for which there is no key.
In short, Miller caricatures Emerson and Whitman. Along with every other august figure mentioned or alluded to in Tropic of Cancer, they are brought down to the level of the street, to the level on which Miller encounters Boris, Carl, Van Norden, Bessie, the Russian Princess, and the other expatriate caricatures who appear and disappear in the course of his rambling digressive narrative.