Chris Heffernan on Renegade
Published by Yale University Press and running roughly two hundred and twenty pages long, Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer brings together the different facets of Henry Miller’s youth and adult life with the evolving cultural landscapes of the United States coming out of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, and an early 1930’s Paris of fringe characters, to put together the mosaic of social movements, attitudes and events that brought about the novel Tropic of Cancer. Written by Frederick Turner, the book begins with a simple overview of Miller living in Paris in the early ‘30s where he sends a letter to a good friend back in New York, telling him that he is to begin work on a new novel that is uncensored and formless, and ends the letter with the expression “fuck everything!” The book, of course, goes on to become Tropic of Cancer. Turner uses this sentiment, from the pen of Miller himself, to color the beginning of the story of how Tropic of Cancer became Tropic of Cancer, and give it the fire and flavor needed to deal with such a tempestuous book, and such a tempestuous author. With the reader grabbed, Turner then slows things to give a brief look at Miller’s life, hitting the high points ofhis upbringing, a few literary influences, what Miller was up to around 1930 and how these things tie to a changing America and what were some culturally relevant high points at the time and what was relevant to Miller himself. In this Turner sets the stage for the rest of the book, which is not a critique of Tropic of Cancer, but is a brief historical analysis of the making of Tropic of Cancer, juxtaposing events from Miller’s life along with a tangential synopsis of American history focused more on the culture of the American outsider in folk history. This, Turner feels, was where Miller drew his strength from.
Renegade is split into two main parts, dividing the book almost in half with the first relating Miller’s youth, his days in Brooklyn, his Germanic roots and the shuffling through the Bushwick and Williamsburg neighborhoods by his family to keep those roots and Henry’s ultimate rejection of this heritage and familial lifestyle which begins his place as an outsider within his own family and as well as with his friends. It goes on to illustrate Miller’s transient ways while in New York City, by moving from low paying job to low paying job until he lands for a stint helping his father’s failing tailor business, then ultimately staying for some time working for Western Union, while getting married to a woman he comes to despise and having a daughter he basically ignores. The first part then moves into his meeting June, his muse, and the woman who would encourage him to quit his job at Western Union to write, and the woman who would ultimately support him by taking odd jobs such as selling candy, and, even as it is alluded to, prostituting herself. But it was June’s unflappable belief that Henry could write that kept him going when he was nothing more than a buffoon who talked a great game and failed at almost everything he put on paper; and it was June who convinced him to go to Paris. All of this portrayed by Turner with soft touches, not lingering too much on any one detail in order to get a solid understanding of where Miller was coming from, and who he was, and how he developed into the forty-year-old failure that he was; and all of it mixed with a history of the United States, focused on its outlaw folk figures with Turner giving enough detail of the figures he uses to move the reader in the direction of understanding the temperament of the times, of what was the typical sort of behavior in America and who broke the barriers of that behavior, the social attitudes, and how this reflected back at Miller and his writing, while citing the American idea that in order to be a writer of true merit you cannot be too literary, or even literary at all, that is to say, not illiterate, but that you lived beyond books and in touch with a reality that was more visceral. Walt Whitman and Mark Twain each have their own place in Turner’s book, with Twain having his own chapter title. Leaves of Grass was in Miller’s suitcase when he left for Paris. He was a big influence on Miller and Turner makes the immediate connection between the two with America taking a long time to catch up to the poet Whitman as they did with Miller, but the connection goes deeper with Whitman who opened up free verse and put a crack in poetic form that the world would never recover from, making a change that was so new that like many of the barroom brawlers and Mississippi riverboat gamblers mentioned, was an outsider, someone beyond the confines of society, which was what Miller became and how his writing lived.
The second part of the book is about Henry Miller in Paris. Involving less of the culture that was around him, this focuses on Miller himself and his living situations in Paris and his survival that was often day to day. One might ask why in Renegade were French culture and the artistic refinements of the world that was happening around Miller not addressed, and the simple answer is that it did not affect Miller as dramatically, either in his life or his writing. The cultural absorption that happened to Miller in the United States happened as he was growing up, working its way through his formative years and coming, as it did, when he was an adult. By the time he got to Paris in 1930 he was forty, and more or less set in his ways. It is also something to keep in mind that the Paris Miller came to was not the Paris of the 1920s but a Paris heading into an economic depression, a place where art and culture did not flourish but struggled along, much like Miller. It was almost the perfect place for Miller and his aesthetic toward life, an understanding of things that Turner refers to as the slaughterhouse. So in Paris the focus is on Miller, as Miller himself focuses on himself, away from the distractions of New York, and gets to his writing. Here is where Turner opens up about Miller working at writing, as here Miller has plunged himself into a place where he has almost nothing other than the few people around him and his books. Many of his friends who had been reading his earlier manuscripts, one of which that would go on to become Crazy Cock, would often tell him to put the old stories down and get to writing in the vein that he spoke. Again, Turner ties in the American folk hero, the story teller, the teller of tall tales, which Miller, as it seemed was a natural at, and which many of the people around him felt was his strongest quality, that when in the mood he could go on about something, an idea, an event, for almost an entire night, and that when he did go on he usually had something interesting and entertaining to say, saying it in a way that was almost a show for everyone around him. Finally Miller decided to do it. And that was where the letter to his friend Emil back in New York, came from. A decision that he was going to go out beyond anything he knew as literature, and that he was going to run out on the page the way he ran out through the twisted streets of Paris, through his own twisted life, with everything uncensored and formless, flowing out in a rapacious guttural whoop that would in a way be like the free verse of Whitman combined with a sort of scathing social observation like Twain, that would, in the end, make him a renegade. Something unliterary. That it would not have the pretense of the world of literature. Turner does a brilliant job illustrating the scene inParis where all of this took shape. That Miller was not plugged into the literary people of his generation, or the generation coming up. That he knew miscreants, and fools, dreamers, criminals and tarot card readers; and only after some time did he meet a few artists, but mostly on the fringe of things, all the while juggling his personal life fraught with fights with friends he had burned, and the occasional European trip of June, where he struggled with the last vestige of feeling for a woman who was not only drifting away from him emotionally, but slipping more and more into psychological turmoil.
Turner illustrates a picture of Miller that Miller himself often alludes to in his writing, that of his haplessness, and that of one where a woman usually rescues him, and not in the way where she would give him a few dollars for a meal, but in an overall life affirming, life saving way. Where June encouraged Miller to quit his job and write back in Brooklyn, Anais Nin would be the one who guided him to getting Tropic of Cancer written and published. She would be the one he bounced ideas off as the two of them went over the script for a total of three drafts, rewriting and rewriting, until it became what it is today. She would be the one who stood over him and behind him, jostling him back onto the path when he would fall off or take a boorish detour. And it was Nin, who, when Obelisk press was interested in Miller’s work and Miller kept pushing Crazy Cock, told him to let that book go, that it was not a good book and that the other manuscript, the one he kept calling The Last Book was the better one, the one that would become Tropic of Cancer. She could see it and knew it, and her understanding of literature and that book in its infancy seems almost prophetic, and it was a boon for Miller.
Turner addresses the content of Topic of Cancer throughout the book, not citing specific examples of Miller developing his aesthetic, but using the entirety of Renegade itself to illustrate how the attitudes and world view developed in Miller, the life and the view of an outsider, a renegade, a view that has humanity as mostly degraded. That is why Turner reinforces Miller’s understanding of civilization as a slaughterhouse, to enforce the idea that Miller sees it all as degraded, that he sees most people as degraded and sees himself as degraded. It is not a question of whether women are degraded or this or that person, or this or that writer is degraded, it is all meat for the slaughterhouse, the death factory that is perpetuated by man himself. We are the executioners of our own demise and Miller sees himself as a degraded part of this, as with the story Turner gives of one of Miller’s friends throwing money into the gutter just to watch Miller get on his hands and knees and pick it up, and he did every time. The degradation that one group or another might want to assign to certain aspects of The Tropic of Cancer actually permeates all of The Tropic of Cancer and Miller himself, as Turner deftly illustrates with the outsider mentality generated by the life and view of Miller, of one looking in at the most absurd abuses that one must suffer simply to eat, or find a bed.
All of this was where Tropic of Cancer came from, and Turner puts it out on display in a book that brings many big sections of study, American history, folk heroes, literary history,literary renegades in history, etc, and sets them together in a form easily enough for the reader to understand. Beginning with the beginning of Miller, and tying it in with the Bowery aesthetic of American history and walking it up to his departure to Paris and painting the scenes and struggles of Miller’s life as a vagabond, and then offering an event by event synopsis of Tropic of Cancer, giving a digestible view of the book that added to the summation of events of Miller’s life itself in Paris, that leads to the New World that Turner sees, the world that breaks from the old world of the nineteenth century riverboat, of those Bowery barrooms, and moves it through the early twentieth century to a place where Miller, with his pen, points at the future, at sexual liberation, at the end of censorship, to the end of a degraded system of cultural niceties that pervaded the slaughterhouse and kept a bowtie on the rotting carcass of farts, to a place where you could say fuck everything and mean fuck everything and then go out and fuck everything.