Narrative Detours

Introduction: I want to make a detour

I want to make a detour of those lofty arid mountain ranges where one dies of thirst and cold, that "extra-temporal" history, that absolute of time and space where there exists neither man, beast, nor vegetation, where one goes crazy with loneliness, with language that is mere words, where everything is unhooked, ungeared, out of joint with the times. I want a world of men and women, of trees that do not talk (because there is too much talk in the world as it is!), of rivers that carry you to places, not rivers that are legends, but rivers that put you in touch with other men and women, with architecture, religion, plants, animals--rivers have boats on them and in which men drown, drown not in myth and legend and books and dust of the past, but in time and space and history.
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Few products of the self-styled "Revolution of the Word" of the 1920s and 1930s have proved more disturbing to our sense of what is or ought to be valued art than Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939).[1] Other modernist novels, more radical and more conventional, move in and out of critical and public view, but for half a century Henry Miller's expatriate narratives have visibly marked the contentious boundary between "good" and "bad" art, "serious literature" and "popular fiction," "aesthetic creation" and "pornographic exploitation." Since he first appeared in the "twilight of the expatriates" as "the spokesman, par excellence, for the Left Bank," Miller has inspired the fervid efforts of advocates and adversaries seeking to establish his centrality to modern American literature and life, or to expunge him from literary and even popular imagination.[2] In neither direction have these partisan efforts succeeded. Miller's work continues to sell, influence contemporary fiction, and provoke violent debate whenever raised. Instead of settling the "Miller question," the debate over Miller's place in American letters has complicated and raised the stakes of an "answer." Feminists, from Kate Millet to Catharine MacKinnon, have joined in improbable alliance with Miller's partisans in impugning the methods and motives of those who would hold Miller at a tasteful distance from the literary tradition.[3] Attempts to strike a more dispassionate critical balance between the claims of Miller's friends and foes have proved inadequate, mixing hot and cold to produce the kind of lukewarm "assessment" that gives academic criticism the reputation of irrelevance: no one can read very far into Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring or Tropic of Capricorn without realizing that an "open mind" is the most inappropriate of responses. Miller emerged with a generation of writers who cultivated controversy as a sign of success in challenging established literary canons; almost alone he has remained controversial, in good conscience neither acceptable nor dismissible. Through five decades of criticism the refrain runs, "This fellow can write: but[....]"[4]

The debate over Miller's proper place inside or outside our mainstream literary tradition has obscured the more intriguing historical questions posed by the ambiguous position he already occupies and has occupied since the 1930s. Miller has been that most paradoxical of literary creatures, a "minor writer" with "major relevance" (Kingsley Widmer), a writer whose works are critically devalued and politically denounced, but whose influence upon urban American writing from the Beats of the fifties to the New Journalism of the seventies and eighties is as pronounced as Faulkner's upon southern and rural fiction.[5] I propose to explore the phenomenon of Miller's ambiguous status. How has the modern literary tradition been constructed that a manifestly serious and influential novelist can be both "minor" and "major," without and within, at the same time? What is it about Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn that has made them the object of a fifty-year open debate over literary and cultural values--continuing even as literary criticism parted company with that magisterial arbiter of taste, the gentleman scholar, in order to immerse itself in technical, linguistic and philosophic questions of textual hermeneutics?

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