The Twenties were the Jazz Age, when F. Scott Fitzgerald shared cigarettes with Zelda Sayre and clarinet wails could be heard cascading down Fifth Avenue. So what were the Thirties? Henry Miller spent much of his time in Paris during a time when the City of Lights remained the world’s artistic and intellectual capital, while on the horizon, storm clouds were beginning to gather.
When Tropic of Cancer was released in France, World War II was only five years away. In six years, the Nazis would be marching down the Champs-Elysees and Marechal Petain would be holding court in Vichy. There is little on the surface of Tropic to suggest this oncoming calamity, but in many ways Europe’s memory of the Thirties is just as informed by the disaster that hit near the end of the decade as our memory of the Twenties is by the Crash of ’29. Just as Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age stories and novels chronicle champagne soirees, impossibly ritzy balls, and heavy-drinking aesthetes partying as if there were no tomorrow, so does Tropic of Cancer present a vivid portrait of a hedonist and rollicking Paris, a Paris that perhaps senses its end is coming and has decided to party hard before the lights go out.
One can compare Miller’s novel to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries, later made into the musical Cabaret. In both cases, the setting is a pleasure-loving city on the brink of catastrophe. In Isherwood's novel, the looming threat – Nazism – is clearly spelled out. In Miller’s case, neither he nor his fellow expatriates knew what was about to hit their adopted land in a few years’ time. Reading Cancer for warning signs is an act carried out necessarily in retrospect.
World War II caused Miller to leave Paris and return to the United States. The City of Lights regained its mantle as a center of the arts after the Liberation, but one could argue that it was never quite the same. Many of Europe’s greatest minds had fled to the States during the war, and many stayed on afterwards. New York became a painting Mecca. Paris lost its monopoly. In the Thirties, however, Paris was abuzz like few places in history. Gertrude Stein rubbed shoulders with James Joyce, who crossed paths with Andre Breton, who quarreled with Salvador Dali, who collaborated with Luis Bunuel while Ernest Hemingway looked on through his shades. It was a heady time, and Miller captures it in loving and frenetic detail.