Narrative Detours

Introduction: The Revolution of the Word

Answers to these questions might be sought at any point in the history of the reception of Miller's expatriate narratives, a history which includes his subsequent novels and essays. Forty-eight years old when he returned to America after nearly a decade in Paris, Miller outlived most of his fellow expatriates, continuing to write for another four decades until his death in 1979. These later additions to Miller's oeuvre inevitably reshaped the meaning of his Paris narratives, which, like Miller himself, led a varied public life after the onset of the Second World War ended "The Revolution of the Word." The American publication of Miller's "banned books" under the banner of "freedom of expression" in the early 1960s, and Kate Millet's feminist indictment in Sexual Politics (1969) of the "sexual liberation" this "freedom" was supposed to herald, initiated major shifts in the terms under which Miller's "value" has been debated. But Miller's ambiguous position in American letters antedates and survives these developments. Already in 1938, Edmund Wilson's review of Tropic of Cancer for The New Republic uncannily anticipates the polarized outline, if not the precise terms, of all subsequent debate over Miller's work: "Today the conventional critics are evidently too shocked by it to be able to bring themselves to deal with it--though their neglect of it cannot wholly have been determined by the reflex reactions of squeamishness. [....] As for the Left-Wingers, they have ignored The Tropic of Cancer on the ground that it is merely a product of the decadent expatriate culture and can be of no interest to the socially minded and forward-looking present."[6]

If Wilson's review anticipates the tenor of ensuing dispute over Miller, it sounds a note that has escaped most subsequent critics. According to Wilson, the "historical importance" of Tropic of Cancer lies in Miller's attempt to write "the epitaph for the whole generation of American writers and artists that migrated to Paris after the war." "We are going to put it down--the evolution of this world which has died but which has not been buried," Miller wrote, setting out upon a polemical "detour" to change the direction "The Revolution of the Word" was taking.[7] Miller's ambition was unduly optimistic; Wilson's assent too sanguine.[8] As readers, writers, and critics we still live, affirmatively or antithetically, in the shadow of the consensus forged by a "Lost Generation" they thought dead and awaiting burial. Frustrated in its grand design, Miller's challenge to the aesthetic values and interpretive conventions successfully advanced by many of his fellow expatriates succeeded only in installing his narrative modernism proximate to--ambiguously inside and outside--our canon of "New Critical" modernism. In consequence, even after fifty years Miller's language has a strangely contemporary sound: his narrative modernism gives voice to intimations of modernity omitted from the "mythic" and "symbolist" consensus that formed high modernism. But equally, Miller's narrative dissent has placed his novels outside the interpretive conventions that give us ready, empathetic access to the coherence, structure, and intention of canonical texts, rendering his alternative modernism vulnerable to social and political criticism for what, though manifest throughout the received modern tradition, we tend to excuse or extenuate in the name of Art, Irony, and Tragic error. The controversy Miller's expatriate novels are still capable of stirring is but another indication that we have yet to come to terms with the legacy of his generation's literary battles.

It is Miller's historically close and antithetical relation to the writers and critics whose work would form the basis of New Critical modernism that, more than his Whitmanesque "barbaric yawp," has made it difficult to "read" Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn as anything other than second-rate Modernism or an "anti-literature" indifferent to aesthetic considerations. Miller's expatriate works are neither. They embody an ambitious writer's calculated response to the debate over the shape of the "New Novel" he joined in 1930--the year the first "guidebook" to the "classical" Ulysses, James Joyce's 'Ulysses': A Study by Stuart Gilbert, ratified and elaborated Eliot's strident declaration in "'Ulysses,' Order, and Myth," "Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method."[9] Discerning the formation of a literary and critical alliance, Miller intuited its transformative power even as he sought to resist it:

Already, almost coincidentally with their appearance, we have, as a result of Ulysses and Work in Progress, nothing but dry analyses, archaeological burrowings, geological surveys, laboratory tests of the Word. The commentators, to be sure, have only begun to chew on Joyce. The Germans will finish him. They will make Joyce palatable, understandable, clear as Shakespeare, better than Joyce, better than Shakespeare. Wait! The mystagogues are coming![10]

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