15. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1934)

“Is Henry Miller a writer who has influenced you in any way?” Burroughs was once asked.

His answer: “No.”

I agree, although perhaps with a minor caveat.

I’ve never read Miller’s work and I’m guessing, outside of those with an interest in “banned books”, neither have many readers of my generation.

I suspect he will become one of those authors who slip off the radar as the years go by. His work doesn’t feel immortal. If it is timeless, it is because the Ugly American (to use a Burroughsism) is timeless. But there’ll always be more Ugly Americans.

It’s a roman a clef; a semi-autobiographical novel with fantasy, reverie and philosophy mixed in. As such, it could be considered the start of a trajectory that matures with Tom Wolfe and peaks with Kerouac.

And yet, in spite of this formal innovation, the content of the novel itself is rather repetitive. Miller lacks the transcendent longing of Kerouac, or even the rose-tinted glasses of Wolfe. He is amused and bemused.

In a world of bad artists, prostitutes and liars, he lives as a beggar. The underclass of an underclass (albeit with regular cash injections sent from his abandoned wife back in America).

If you listen to Miller talk, you’ve be forgiven for thinking him a Bukowski-type figure. His writing is more sophisticated, however, while also being more wandering and aimless. If a reader wants titillation and drinking stories, Bukowski so far surpasses Miller as to make Miller obsolete.

So what is left of Miller? Not punchy enough for the Fante/Bukowski bar room set and not wistful enough for the Wolfe/Kerouac set. He stands out alone.

If it wasn’t for the infamous court case surrounding Tropic of Cancer, ultimately leading to its US publication in 1961 (the American equivalent to the UK Chatterley Trial), it would be difficult to place Miller anywhere at all.

Even his subject matter – Paris in the 1920s – bears little resemblance to decadent (and internally cohesive) picture painted for us by Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald and Dos Passos. Instead, his Paris could be any beat-down district of any beat-down western city.

This may be a result of the novel’s chronology. The narrative itself leaps around from 1917 to 1929. Miller wrote it in the early 1930s, getting it published in France in 1934 but only in a limited run.

When it finally became widely available in the 1961 Grove Press edition, it served somewhat as a time capsule; a job it did terribly at, not being at all concerned about the importance of the time and place where it’s set.

So why read Miller for this project?

Well, it’s partly about beating the bounds. Finding out where the limits of influence are.

Burroughs read Miller. He met him twice and referenced his work in a number of interviews. He read Tropic of Cancer but only spoke positively of Opus Pistorum (a pornographic novella written for quick cash in 1941). He denied influence, but must have discussed him with Kerouac, upon whose writing an influence is clearly visible.

Having spent a little time in Paris himself, Burroughs may have read Miller in the Obelisk Press edition, although he doesn’t discuss Miller prior to meeting him at the 1961 Edinburgh Festival.

The most important connection is the obscenity trial. Without Tropic of Cancer’s precedent, it is unlikely that any American publisher would have ever touched Naked Lunch. The Burroughs case was the next big precedent after Miller.

A good positioning text then. A forefather. Or perhaps, more accurately, a great uncle, somewhat estranged.