Pity John Burnside. It’s not the best time to publish an appreciation and defense of Henry Miller, whose Tropics trilogy, written in the 1930s, was banned for decades in the US for obscenity, and then indicted by feminist critic Kate Millet in her book Sexual Politics (1970) as a paramount example of chauvinist attitudes toward women. Burnside, a poet, points out that Miller is a romantic who devoted over a thousand pages (the Rosy Crucifixion cycle) to chronicling his narrator’s relationship with the great love of his life (based on Miller’s second wife, June). More specifically, Miller was one of the early-twentieth-century writers—with Lawrence and Joyce—who brought the explicitly carnal, so-called lower functions into the literary language of heterosexual romantic love.
Written in an autobiographical first person, Miller’s dirty books are intimate and ardent. “O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed,” Miller’s narrator croons in his infamous address to a married lover in the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer—reason alone for the book to be unpublishable in his home country until 1961, when it was vindicated as a legitimate work of art in an obscenity trial.
I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked.
It may be hard to hear the romance and dash of Miller’s address when parts of it (“I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt”) sound like something an angry gamer might have tweeted to Brianna Wu, the video game developer who received numerous threats after criticizing the sexist nature of her industry (actual example: “I’ve got a K-bar and I’m coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly feminist cunt”). Fifty years after the last obscenity trials cleared the way for sexually explicit content in art, Miller’s writing still violates community standards, as they say, but for a reason other than its being explicit. Alongside our general acceptance of sexual and profane language, a public language of violent, misogynist intimidation has also arisen. “Take her off the stage and fuck her,” some men from Students for a Democratic Society jeered while Shulamith Firestone was speaking about women’s issues at…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.