George Orwell’s 1940 review of Tropic of Cancer is worth revisiting for several reasons. Not least of which is the critical lens that one novelist uses to examine, evaluate and analyze another novelist’s work. Reviews often reveal as much about the biases of the reviewer as they do with the book under review.
Orwell’s review details a bias about Miller’s class (working class), nationality (American), and art (he’s a failure) and politics (the absence of political context). Orwell’s sensibilities were fashioned at Eton; Millers on the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn. Orwell’s sympathies were with the working class; Miller was from the American working class. In the English world of 1940 the class distinction would have been a significant factor in the literary world where the Orwells were expected to write meaningful books and the D.H. Lawrences given a shovel and told to dig coal. It is important to remember the rigidity of class divide and everything that flows from it whenever an Orwell reviews a Lawrence.
Reading Orwell’s review of Henry Miller is at times painful when his class talons are involuntarily exposed. His review of Tropic of Cancer displays the conflict between the ideal of what the working class consciousness ought to be—politically attuned—and the reality of Miller’s working class absolute focus on the sensual to the exclusion of the larger political framework.
Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence broke free of the bonds of their culture and class by travelling and living abroad. In Orwell’s case, fighting in a foreign civil war (The Spanish Civil War) showed a commitment to overcome the walls of class and upbringing and how very hard a road that is to travel. Orwell sought a literary life devoted to repudiating the chains of his class. In his review of Miller, it seems for Orwell that those chains were never fully severed.
Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London where Miller set The Tropic of Cancer. Both books were intensely autobiographical. He may have had a propriety feeling about his Paris. This is a kind of old hand attitude that one finds in many places including Bangkok where the old days were always better, more alive, more interesting and stimulating. Orwell couldn’t quite figure out why Henry Miller would bother with Paris after the golden age of the late 1920s when “there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them imposters.” Paris was swamped with “artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees, and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.” Though Orwell didn’t live long enough to see a similar accumulation of people in Bangkok in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For Orwell, the Paris scene populated by the expats of the 1920s had vanished by the time Henry Miller arrived to find “bug-ridden rooms in working-men’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs.”
George Orwell, an old Paris hand, felt that 1930s Paris (it was no longer his Paris) had less promising material for a novelist. Actually, it comes across even stronger; he thought Paris was a waste of time, a distraction in the larger European theatre, a spent force where nothing of interest would emerge. By comparison, in Orwell’s view there was vastly more interesting material to be mined in Rome, Moscow and Berlin as Hitler and Stalin worked the military and political levers pushing toward war. The fact is, by the time of this review Orwell had the advantage of hindsight. Henry Miller was writing in Paris in the 1930s before the war started. To strike Miller with a cross-over punch to the jaw for not anticipating the future outcome is an easy shot as the fist is coming from an arm originating in 1940.
To ignore the European political developments, to Orwell’s mind you were “either a footler or a plain idiot.” [Note: A footler is someone who wastes time or talks nonsense.] Orwell chose not to answer in which of those categories Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer fell. But it was plain to Orwell that Miller’s literary credibility was on the line. Or more graphically, he was driving a stake through the heart of a minor monster that no one should take seriously. He wanted to grab Miller by the throat and shouted in his face, “You fool, what about Hitler? Concentration Camps? Forget about bonking and look what is happening around you at the gathering forces of history which are building to send you and the rest of the working class back to the battlefield!”
While Orwell came to the brink, he blinked and chose to sidestep the absence of political context and the fact that Paris had become a backwater. Despite a silver literary stake driven through Miller’s heart, Orwell concluded that Miller’s book was ‘a very remarkable book.’ That is a remarkable observation given Orwell’s doubt about the value of a novel “written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter.”
What brought Orwell around despite his obvious reservations about Miller’s choice of where to set the book and the lack of even a remote bit of interest in the larger political clouds forming over Europe, including Paris, at the time the story was set, was that Miller was genuine working class. As much as Orwell fought for and wrote about the working class, he was never a member of that class. Orwell was as much an outsider to the working class as Miller was to the French in Paris, and for the same sort of reasons—attitude, education, and sensibility.
What saved Tropic of Cancer and made it linger in his memory, was that Miller was about to ‘create a world of their own’, not based on the strange but the familiar. Miller’s genius was in letting the reader know that he or she was being understood. Miller’s reader would say, “He knows all about me. He wrote this specially for me.” There is no humbug, moralizing, trying to persuade you to understand his perspective or values. What Orwell valued was that Miller dispensed with the usual lies and simplifications and instead wrote about “recognizable experiences of human beings.” Miller gave the reader that the things he was writing about were happening to you.
The nature of the experience chosen by a writer mattered a great deal to Orwell. It is interesting that Orwell who was born in India and was a colonial official in Burma (and whose first novel was Burmese Days) should take a negative view of expatriate life and the role of authors writing about such lives. He noted that Miller’s book wasn’t about “people working, marrying and bringing up children” but about people who lived and survived by their wits on the street, visited cafes, brothels and studios. Orwell believed that expatriate writers transferred their ‘roots into shallower soil’ as a result of concentrating on these experiences.
For Eton educated Orwell, I suspect what he secretly loved about Tropic of Cancer was his feeling Miller was interested in bringing what was common in the real life of ordinary people with all of its callous coarseness out into the open. What he secretly envied was Miller’s class credentials. Orwell might have lived down and out in Paris but his self-imposed suffering could never have made him a member of the working class. Orwell fought alongside the working class in the streets of Barcelona. Henry Miller drank and fornicated in the Latin Quarter. Tropic of Cancer made it clear that it was one thing to make an intellectual commitment to the working class, argue their cause, fight their battles, but quite another thing to become an authentic spokesman of their emotions and desires.
Miller laid open the lives through their spoken language. “Miller is simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words.” There is no protest about the horror and meaninglessness of contemporary life. In its place, Miller had written a book about someone whose life circumstances should have made them miserable but instead, in the case of Henry Miller, he was incredibly happy. Such an epiphany must have been a slap in the face for someone committed to the struggle of the working class.
In contrast, Orwell thought James Joyce was an artist who turned ordinary working class life into art. Miller was the tabloid writer who entered the mind of the ordinary person and his words to the ears of one who marched on the playing fields of Eton had not gone through the usual filters that censored language and thought.
What separate the two men transcends class, nationality and politics. It comes down to Orwell’s view of a writer at all times and all places which is to resist fear, tyranny and regimentation. When Orwell looked up from Tropic of Cancer, what horrified him wasn’t the language or whoring, it was Miller’s acceptance of ‘concentration camps, rubber truncheons” as well as Hitler, Stalin, machine guns, putsches, purges, gas masks, spies, provocateurs, censorship, secret prisons, and political murders. For Orwell it was unthinkable for a serious writer to ‘accept civilization as it is practically means accepting decay.’ Orwell makes the case that Miller’s point of view was passive and he laid down and with a sense of resignation and let things happen to him.
On reflection, who are the characters in Tropic of Cancer? They aren’t the ordinary factory worker or family in the suburb, but “the derelict, the déclassé, the adventurer, the American intellectual without roots and without money.” And what evaluates and saves Tropic of Cancer is isolated by Orwell to one crucial factor: Miller ‘had the courage to identify with it” as he was part of this group. He didn’t look down on them, try to explain or justify, he reported their lives, troubles, loves, sensual preoccupation.
Orwell was a political writer who used the form of the novel to great effect in 1984 and Animal Farm. He would hardly be the reader of choice for a novel preoccupied with sex among American expats in Paris in the 1930s. For him the sensual man was out of fashion, it was the time of the political man to take a stand on principle. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer accepts a world with endless cycles of violence, greed, aggression, inequality, and injustice as largely unchangeable, and that the best chance anyone has is for an escape from the constraints of the madness and limits of one’s own culture and exploring their emotions inside a new culture. Both Orwell and Miller lived in a pre-global world. Literature and writers were identified with their nationality and class. This is less true in our modern world. To read Orwell’s essay on Henry Miller is to see how far we have travelled since 1940 in terms of what readers expect of authors, and what authors’ expect from each other.
American Henry Miller was an escape artist, a hustler, and sensualist. Englishman Orwell was a Barcelona street fighter and British colonial official. The divide between the two men could hardly have been greater in terms of personality, education, temperament, and philosophy. The gap between Eton and the working class slums of Brooklyn was huge. For all of those differences, though, Orwell saw why Miller had attracted readers—he brought them into a story, never talked down to them, and made them feel they should step inside and join him on a grand odyssey of the sensual world that was recognizable and real and spoke directly to their own lives.
That part of Orwell’s review is as true today as it was in 1940. The social, economic and political distance between Orwell and Miller’s consciousness may be greater today. Few novelists have taken up the cause of the working class struggle. That fell with the Berlin Wall and in place of a wall is a growing inequality, repression and acceptance. It seems that Miller may have won in the end. What is important to remember is that Orwell took Miller seriously. In 2013 writers situated along this divide are receding like galaxies traveling at the speed of light away from each other. Soon they will no longer have evidence the ‘other’ ever existed. As recently reported in the New York Times, novelists are no longer critically review each other’s books. The competition for money, academic position and literary prizes has silenced a generation of novelists too afraid and timid to speak truth not just to authority but to each other.