Historical Context and Impact of Tropic of Cancer in Literature


The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is a novel that has caused much controversy and critical debate since its release in 1934. Set in the 1920s, the book follows the life of the main character, Henry, as he moves from New York to Paris and then to various parts of Europe. The novel is known for its explicit sexual and often shocking depictions of life and society during that time period. In this article, we will explore the historical context behind the Tropic of Cancer and its impact on literature.

The 1920s, also known as the “Roaring Twenties,” was a time of great social and cultural change. It was a period of economic growth, increased individualism, and rebellion against traditional values and societal norms. This era also saw the rise of the “Lost Generation,” a term coined by Gertrude Stein, to describe the disillusionment and feeling of purposelessness among the young adults who lived through World War I. The Lost Generation included writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and of course, Henry Miller.

The Tropic of Cancer was written during this period of cultural upheaval, and it reflects the rebellious and hedonistic spirit of the time. The novel is highly autobiographical, drawing from Miller’s own experiences as a struggling writer in Paris. Through his protagonist, Miller explores themes of sexuality, freedom, and the search for meaning in a world that seems devoid of it. He also presents a scathing critique of modern society, which he believes to be filled with greed, materialism, and moral decay.

When the Tropic of Cancer was first published, it faced immediate backlash and was banned in several countries, including the United States. The book was considered obscene and was seen as a threat to the moral fabric of society. In 1961, after a lengthy legal battle, the novel was finally deemed not obscene by the Supreme Court, and its publication became legal in the US. This historic ruling not only had a significant impact on the literary world but also on society’s view of censorship and freedom of expression.

The Tropic of Cancer’s graphic depictions of sex and its explicit language were unheard of in literature at the time. Miller’s bold and unapologetic portrayal of sexuality and his rejection of societal norms shocked and intrigued readers, making the book an instant success. The novel’s honest and raw exploration of human desires and impulses challenged traditional notions of morality and paved the way for future taboo-breaking works of literature.

Moreover, the Tropic of Cancer’s influence can still be seen in contemporary literature. Many writers have cited Miller as a major influence, including Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and Ana├»s Nin. His writing style, characterized by free-flowing and stream of consciousness narratives, has inspired countless authors to experiment with form and structure in their work. Miller’s use of vivid imagery and descriptive language has also had a lasting impact on the way writers describe and convey emotions and sensations.

In conclusion, the Tropic of Cancer is a significant literary work that not only reflects the cultural and social climate of the 1920s but also had a profound and lasting impact on literature. Miller’s bold and unapologetic exploration of taboo subjects and his rejection of societal norms challenged readers to question their own values and beliefs. The novel’s controversial history and its enduring influence make it an essential read for anyone interested in literature and its evolution.