Monday, August 25, 2008

Naming Tropic Of Cancer

Astrological symbolism played only a part in the naming of Henry Miller’s classic book titles, Tropic Of Cancer and Tropic Of Capricorn. Miller was born on December 26th, making him a Capricorn (Dec.22 – Jan. 19), but this appears to have not have been a direct inspiration as much as it was meant to be a complimentary title for its predecessor. Tropic of Cancer was partly a reference to the Zodiac, but also a symbol of a cancerous decay of society, the sideways movement of the crab, and the polar opposites of the equatorial zones. Tropic Of Cancer was in fact not his first choice of title.

“Last book, a novel, will be published anonymously,” announced Miller is his thumbnail autobiography in Peter Neagoe’s Americans Abroad directory in 1932. The previous summer, 1931, he had conceived this book-to-end-all-books along with Michael Fraenkel, who had been letting Henry stay with him at 18 Villa Seurat*. Miller expert Karl Orend explains how these two admirers of Oswald Spengler planned to drop a cultural bomb: “They intended their book to usher in the end of the current civilization, which had been rushing headlong towards disaster over the previous decades. It was all foreseen in Spengler, and his birth and death cycles of culture and civilization. The end was nigh, and they would write an apocalyptic satire to condemn the age, which had become dominated by spritual suicide and inhumanity. It would be called The Last Book. The last book of the Bible is Revelation, vision of the Apocalypse, to which the title referred” [1].

A few weeks after Miller left the Villa Seurat address, he announced to Emil Schnellock his intention to write this “first person, uncensored, formless” Paris book [2]. A year later, on August 29, 1932, Schnellock received the first 100 pages of this “Last Book” (see the manuscript envelope below). In a self-referential passage within these pages (existent in the final version), Miller typed “We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature, Boris [Fraenkel] and I. It is to be a new Bible—The Last Book. All those who have anything to say will say it here—anonymously. We will exhaust the age. After us not another book—not for a generation, at least” (Tropic of Cancer, p.26).

A few months earlier, in March 1932, Henry was still calling this work The Last Book, as is evidenced by an ironic note he made for himself: “Make the Last Book the first of a series—a life job, like Proust’s” [3]. But in his mind, this title was still tentative (as he explicitly states in a letter to Emil in April 1932) [4]. By April 1933, Henry has settled on Tropic Of Cancer as a title, but Emil was still making reference to The Last Book in his letters. Henry wrote back that he doesn’t “know anymore what that means. Perhaps Tropic Of Cancer […] Since then there are a few last books” [5].

Read further analysis of The Last Book concept in the essay, “Narrative Detours.”

A month before Schnellock received his 100 pages of The Last Book, Miller was already deciding on a new title. On July 30,1932, he wrote to Anais Nin for advice: “I think I have discovered a title for the book. How do you like either of these—“Tropic of Cancer” or “I Sing The Equator” [6]. I have not seen Nin’s response, but in hindsight it seems obvious.

Around the same time that Henry sought title advice from Anais, he’d submitted an early draft to a literary agent, William Bradley. The manuscript was called The Tropic Of Cancer. Bradley makes reference to it as such in a handwritten memo dated August 8, 1932 (a facsimile of which is printed the hardcover My Life And Times [1970], p.152) [7]. While living with Alfred Perles in Clichyin 1933, Miller sketched out a tree of philosophical ideas for an unfinished book called Palace of Entrails. At the top of the tree is the equation “CANCER = House of Birth + Death” (facsimile, My Life And Times, p. 75).

In Miller’s short story, "Via Dieppe-Newhaven" (1938), he recounts his efforts to explain the title and symbollic concept of Tropic of Cancer to a British immigartion agent: “‘The Tropic of Cancer,’ I said slowly and solemnly, ‘is not a medical book’[…] ‘The title,’ I answered, ‘is a symbolic title. The Tropic of Cancer is a name given in text-books to a temperate zone lying above the Equator. Below the equator you have the Tropic of Capricorn, which is the south temperate zone. The book, of course, has nothing to do with the climatic conditions either, unless it be a sort of mental climate. Cancer is a name which has always intrigued me: you’ll find it in zodiacal lore too. Etymologically, it comes from chancre, meaning crab. In Chinese symbolism it is a sign of great importance. The crab is the only living creature which can walk backwards and forwards and sideways with equal facility. Of course my book doesn’t treat all of this explicitly. It’s a novel, or rather an autobiographical document” [8].

This reasoning seems pretty consistent with subsequent explanations. To Anais Nin he wrote: “Cancer also means for me the disease of civilization, the extreme point of realization along the wrong path—hence the necessity to change one’s course and begin all over again” [9]. This falls in line with his Cancer = House of Birth + Death equation (death and renewal). In an interview with Ben Grauer in 1956, Miller further explained that Tropic Of Cancer was “a symbolic title I had chosen for a number of reasons, primarily because the cancer is the crab, and the crab has the power, or the ability to walk backwards, forwards, sideways, any direction do you see. I liked that symbol, you know? […] Able to go any direction at will, do you see.”

There are only a few references to cancer in Tropic of Cancer. It’s used metaphorically as a consuming social disease and is applied to the world (a cancer eating itself away,” p.2), to himself and the character Tania (She’s got it now, the cancer and delirium..,” p. 59), and Paris, which “grows inside you like a cancer, and grows and grows until you are eaten away”. Interestingly, in unpublished excerpts of Tropic Of Cancer, Miller makes associations between cancer and his wife June (as Mona): her nail polish has a “sweet, cancerous stench” and, more directly, “You are evil in the way that microbes are evil, like cancer, leprosy, or the coming of puberty” [10].

I have read somewhere that Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn were pet names that Henry had for June’s breasts, but I can’t remember the source of this assertion, and can’t verify whether it’s true or not.

“Opposite Cancer in the Zodiac (extremes of the Equinox—turning points) is Capricorn, the house in which I was born, which is religious and represents in death” [9]. “I had no thought of the next title, but when I came to the next one I thought, well, why not make it Tropic of Capricorn? You see. I was going to try to have one for just the equator. Well, finally I had made Black Spring. That had another great significance to me. But there was always the astrological implication too. Sure” [11].
* I have not read Franekel’s essay "The Genesis of Tropic Of Cancer," but I’m guessing that it elaborates further on the original premise of this collaboration.

[1] Orend, Karl. On The 70th Anniversary of Tropic of Cancer. Paris & Austin: Alyscamps Press, 2004; p.11. [2] Miller, Henry. Letters to Emil. George Wickes, ed. NY: New Directions, 1989; p. 80 (letter dated August 24, 1931); [3] Miller, Henry. A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953. Gunther Stuhlmann, Ed. NY: Harcourt Brace& Co, 1987, p. 37.
[4] Miller, Henry. Letters to Emil. George Wickes, ed. NY: New Directions, 1989; p. 93.
[5] Miller, Henry. Letters to Emil. George Wickes, ed. NY: New Directions, 1989; p. 119 (letter dated April1933). [6] Miller, Henry. A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953. Gunther Stuhlmann, Ed. NY: Harcourt Brace& Co, 1987, p. 80. [7] On page 51 of the same book is a reproduction of what appears to be the handwritten cover page from Bradley’s manuscript. On it, Miller has written Tropic of Capricorn, but scratched out Capricorn and written “Cancer” above it. [8] Miller, Henry. “Via Dieppe-Newhaven.” The Cosmological Eye. NY: New Directions, (1963), p. 214-215. [9] Miller, Henry. Letters To Anais Nin. Gunther Stuhlmann, ed. NY: Putnum, 1965, p.147. [10] Miller, Henry. From Tropic of Cancer: Previously unpublished sections. Roger Jackson, 1999; pp. 41 + 96. [11] Miller, Henry. Henry Miller Recalls And Reflects (LP). With Ben Grauer. April1956. Listen on-line:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you're back again, RC.

I always picture the scene from Henry and June at dinner, when Anais and her husband disagree on which title is best.

But I would like to see Anais' real response to Henry's query.

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