8. The Last Book
Henry Miller, Michael Fraenkel: Hamlet Letters
An examination of Miller's post-Munich letters to Fraenkel and Nin discloses two Tropic of Capricorns, or rather Miller's understanding of the two very different discourses to which Tropic of Capricorn might be made to speak: the "novelistic" discourse that inspired his expatriate narratives and essays, and the "cultural" discourse of "self-liberation" that would dominate his later works. It will illuminate also the interpretive dilemmas encountered by those of Miller's critics who accept his revisionary accounts of Tropic of Capricorn. The distinction I draw here, between Tropic of Capricorn read as part of the unfinished "Tropic of Capricorn" of the 1930s and Tropic of Capricorn read as part of The Rosy Crucifixion "quartet" of the 1940s and 1950s, complements the distinction drawn in previous chapters, between Tropic of Cancer read in opposition to the rise of New Critical modernism and Tropic of Cancer read under the aegis of New Criticism. Such a distinction is necessary, not that we might posit, one more time, some idealized "plurality" or fundamental "ambiguity" of "The Text," but that we might recover some fuller measure of those disputes specific to the early twentieth-century history of the novel.
More precisely than his repatriation, the Munich Crisis divides Miller's modernist and American discourse. During the year prior to the Crisis, Miller toyed with a number of projects he might pursue after the multi-volume "Tropic of Capricorn," but it was the Crisis itself that precipitated a thorough reassessment of his life and career, culminating in a new sense of purpose, the abandonment of the "Tropic of Capricorn" project, and a dramatic shift in the formal properties of his subsequent literary practice. Shortly after his return from Bordeaux, Miller wrote to his friend and mentor Michael Fraenkel, who long before had escaped to Mexico and Puerto Rico. The letter of October 17, 1938, closing the five year correspondence between Miller and Fraenkel recorded in Hamlet, captures Miller's urgent need for reassessment in the wake of his abortive flight:
Sitting on the edge of a volcano to finish this duet I am working with my bags packed and my hat on my head. At the first sound of the siren I blow. I don't want to participate in the conflict nor to be a spectator. Since the events of the last few weeks I feel more than ever separated from the rest of mankind. Their worries are not my worries, their aims are not my aims, their solutions are not my solutions.
I love life above truth, above honor, above friends, country, God or anything. [....] I don't want to be overtaken by death--I want to summon it when I am ready. I believe this is within my power, and further, that it is my prerogative as a man. [....] In 1917, when I was twenty-five, I didn't have a moment's hesitation about what I would do. I knew instantly war was declared that I would not go. This time I wavered. I was enmeshed, and worse, I was enmeshed by my own creation. I had created for myself a good life, a life which suited me. [....] But if the whole world starts to goose-step, I can hear you exclaiming--what then? My dear fellow, I can assure that that day will never come. There will always be a square foot of soil somewhere on earth which the enemy either cannot conquer or does not consider worth conquering. There I will entrench myself, if I can make the getaway.
Such a personal manifesto invites endless speculation upon the ethical and psychological dimensions of Miller's life and work. Indeed, this and other language suggests that Miller's experience of the Munich Crisis might well be characterized as the "mid-life crisis" of a confirmed picaro:
I for my part, at least, have found once again that the problems are not world-problems situated outside the self, but the self. I want to confess that to-day at the age of 47 I am nearer to where I was at 21 than I have ever been, and that I am glad of it. I mean to say that at the age of twenty-one I was nearer to being "on the path" than I have been at any time since.
It is not surprising that Miller's abortive flight from an expected Nazi attack should have called the man back, as it were, to first principles. What is surprising is the extent to which, at the same moment, the writer repudiated the achievements of his Paris years.