First released in 1936 and banned from the U.S. for nearly thirty years, Tropic of Capricorn, along with its predecessor Tropic of Cancer, set a new standard for explicitness of content. D. H. Lawrence’s novels, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and other works had been pushing the envelope for decades, but nothing quite like Miller’s book had been seen when it appeared on the world stage.
Often paired with Cancer, Capricorn is in fact strikingly different in narrative and even tone. The setting, for the most part, is New York and its environs. Brooklyn, a town often described in loving and nostalgic terms, hovers over the childhood memories; Manhattan, far more brutal in its contours, shoves Miller along through his life of two-bit employment; Far Rockaway and the beaches beckon from the near distance, promising sexual escapades and one-night trysts. Miller briefly recounts some of his travels through the South and the West, but for the most part the story stays close to the Big Apple – that skyscraping symbol of America.
That is, indeed, the defining difference between Cancer and Capricorn. The former describes what it is like to be an American in Paris. The latter describes simply what it is like to be an American. The former explores the expatriate tradition, subverting the notion of the artist abroad with its Celine-like focus on poverty and physical hardship. The latter attempts to define the American identity. What makes an American an American? Is it the bloodshed that has been spilled in the country’s name, the genocide of the Native Americans, the expunging of an entire race? Is it the willful destruction of the old in the name of the new, the obliteration of all vestiges? Is it the relentless modernity, the buildings reaching toward the sky?
Though he is often grouped with Surrealists, or the earlier Transcendentalists, Miller does belong to some extent with the other American writers of his time, those who, emerging from the Lost Generation, attempted to stake a claim for American letters and forge a uniquely American literary canon (though, ironically, often by denouncing what they perceived as their country’s sins and failings): F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos.