II. Narrative Detours: Strategy and Device
Jack Kahane, Ezra Pound, Tropic of Cancer
The Miller of Paris in the 1930s was not the "sage" of subsequent years, just as the Miller of Paris was not the Dreiserian moralist of years prior in New York. A relation that becomes elusive with the passage of time becomes concrete when we turn to the 1930s and ask: Who would have thought the relation between Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer to be a close one? When Tropic of Cancer was published, its proximity to Ulysses was manifest: in a city of wide-ranging literary "experiments" Miller's narrative wanderings appeared the product of the same laboratory as the narrative of Bloom's adventures in the streets of Dublin. Aside from Miller and his closest friends, there was his publisher, Jack Kahane of Obelisk Press, who had spent years negotiating with Joyce and Sylvia Beach for the right to issue his own edition of Ulysses, only to receive Joycean scraps--the extract from "Work in Progress," Haveth Childers Everywhere (1930), and a second edition of Pomes Penyeach (1931). Kahane saw Tropic of Cancer as his Ulysses, Obelisk Press's way out from under the "shadow" of Beach's Shakespeare & Company:
I began it [the manuscript of Tropic of Cancer] after luncheon in the shadow of the great copper beech tree [...] and the twilight was deepening into night when I finished it. "At last!" I murmured to myself. I had read the most terrible, the most sordid, the most magnificent manuscript that had ever fallen into my hands; nothing I had yet received was comparable to it for the splendor of its writing, the fathomless depth of its despair, the savour of its portraiture, the boisterousness of its humour. Walking into the house I was exalted by the triumphant sensation of all explorers who have at last fallen upon the object of their years of search. I had in my hands a work of genius and it had been offered to me for publication.
Kahane's exaltation at finding another Ulysses easily might be dismissed as self-interest were it not that his enthusiasm was shared by Ezra Pound, who, forty pages into Tropic of Cancer, dashed off an offer:
have just writ 2 post cards to 2 edtrs
to see if they will rise to my offer to review it
useful (I mean to the seereeyus critic) as means of allocating
Joyce's kinks, and W. Lewis' ill humor.
Another postcard followed immediately:
Great deal more to the book than I thought when I wrote you yester
after reading about 40 pages[....]
Pound suggests that Tropic of Cancer, properly reviewed, might usefully place Ulysses rather than be placed by it. The suggestion and Pound's enthusiasm seem almost incomprehensible in light of the subsequent history of Tropic of Cancer. Indeed, no trace of Pound's correspondence with or concerning Miller may be found in Hugh Kenner's "definitive" The Pound Era.
How are these two particular novels, Tropic of Cancer and Ulysses, next to each other? Pound puts his finger on the answer. No one knew better than Pound, modernism's publicist-at-large and the editor of "The Waste Land," the history-making role of partisan criticism--"(I mean to the seereeyus critic)." To put Tropic of Cancer and Ulysses next to each other is to explore the ambiguity that lies at the beginning of Tropic of Cancer's critical reception: does Ulysses "allocate" Tropic of Cancer or does Tropic of Cancer "allocate" Ulysses? While a "plurality" of possible readings of Tropic of Cancer might expand this ambiguity, the reading I offer--discovering in Miller's novel a deliberate narrative challenge to the aesthetics of New Critical modernism--distinguishes itself not simply on the basis of "fact," but because it also explicates the aesthetic history within which the fact of Miller's challenge has been rendered invisible. A historical reading of Tropic of Cancer is only possible if the "meaning" of Ulysses is also historicized.