Jeanette Winterson on Henry Miller and Tropic of Cancer

Renegade or conformist? Does Miller reinforce a tradition of misogyny?
Frederick Turner, Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer
Jeanette Winterson reviews Frederick Turner's new study, Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer, and asks whether we are praising Miller for the right reasons:
The major lost opportunity in Turner’s book is any serious discussion of Tropic of Cancer and the sexual revolution. The overturning of obscenity laws in the United States and Britain and the defiant rise of the porn industry are part of the extra­ordinary 1960s zeitgeist, but also part of a new sex war.

Cancer was published around the same time the pill was approved for use (1960) and Valium hit the market (1963). Drugs that rendered women more sexually available and more docile were in the service of the ’60s sexual revolution, which was not about equality for women. Women would have to claim that for themselves. Miller was a useful weapon — something to drop into the water supply — against the likes of Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963) and a very different kind of war whoop.

Renegade offers too little social or political background. It seems to me that if part of your mythmaking is to place a writer ahead of his time, we had better know something about his actual world — the world of the 1930s in New York and Paris. In Paris, for instance, brothels were legal, but women couldn’t vote — the exact reverse of the America Miller had left behind.

There is beauty as well as hatred in Cancer, and it deserves its place on the shelf. Yet the central question it poses was stupidly buried under censorship in the 1930s, and gleefully swept aside in the permissiveness of the 1960s. Kate Millett asked the question in the 1970s, but the effort to ignore it is prodigious. A new round of mythmaking is ignoring it once more. The question is not art versus pornography or sexuality versus censorship or any question about achievement. The question is: Why do men revel in the degradation of women? [Read More]