Tropic of Capricorn is, above all else, a self-portrait. This is not to say, however, that everything described in it is autobiographical. There are many clear rapports between Miller’s actual life and the life described in the book. The real Miller also grew up in Brooklyn in a working-class family, with a mentally retarded sister and a heavy-drinking father. The real Miller was obviously a writer, worked in a telegraph company for several years, had affairs with numerous women, and moved to Paris.
Much else in the book is not verifiable, and much of it might even be deliberately invented. In today’s environment of memoirs pitted against novels, with the James Frey scandal driving a wedge between the two genres – one essentially journalistic, and thus dependent on factual accuracy, and one essentially fictional – it is perhaps more difficult to accept Miller’s novel as a “fictional autobiography.” In other words, the factual accuracy of Capricorn is entirely beside the point; what concerns Miller is emotional honesty. Even if he makes up names and stories, he is conveying his own sentiments and personality, and thus the book stands up as a valid self-portrait – not just a personal statement, as any good novel might be, but a series of confessions, a manifesto, an opening-up of the author’s deepest fears and desires, a willful exposure of the skeletons in the closet.
This broader view of autobiographical writing allows many different forms and modes to coexist in Capricorn: essay, prose-poetry, fiction, recantation, and invective. Part scripture, part philosophical treatise, part poem, part novel – and, its detractors may argue, part pornography – Capricorn defiantly neglects traditional boundaries, resulting in a book that baffled many critics and readers in the thirties, and continues to do so today. What gives it its unity is the “I”: Henry V. Miller. The Miller on the page may simply be an alter ego for the real-life Henry Miller, just as both Millers strive to change identities and redefine themselves time and again. That said, the unity between writer and protagonist/narrator is such that all three seem to blend into one. Perhaps that is Miller’s own brand of Christianity, defined through the act of artistic creation: the “Holy Trinity” of author, creation, and the bridge that connects them.