WHETHER IT WILL OR NOT, the U.S. has just been saddled with a second Tropic of literary conversation. Tropic A, published in the U.S. for the first time last year, was Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller's long-banned wallow in Parisian vice. Tropic B is Tropic of Capricorn, its torrid twin. In the past, when both books had to be smuggled into the U.S., hosts of nonreaders thought of them only as interchangeable smut. Now anyone with a strongish stomach can find out for himself: smut they may be, but interchangeable they are not.
Bergson & Bosch. If Cancer was an old world debauch, Capricorn is a kind of New World Sinphony, an account of Author Miller's coming of age in New York City (1900-23). Incredibly garrulous and grotesque, the book is a disordered Horatio Alger story: escape from a poor Brooklyn boyhood, as it might have been written by Harpo Marx and Hieronymus Bosch working together. Wild philosophic maunderings sprinkled with a self-taught man's self-conscious display of highfalutin' acquaintances (Bergson, Nietzsche. Whitman) proclaim Miller's belief in the sovereignty of the heart over the mind. A nearly endless series of appallingly anatomical boy-meets-girl grapplings sometimes suggests that sex is the mystic key to magical joy, but often offers it as an uproarious poolhall joke.
Every overblown line underlines Miller's frantic rebellion against American society.
Gangster Manqué. When Miller keeps his voice (and his vice) down to a low howl, the book is good. Gentle accounts of his tailor father and his simple-minded sister are touched with skill, restraint and humor. More than the ranting, they help explain the near-psychopathic, angry compassion Miller felt for the sufferers in the suffocating world of Myrtle Avenue and Delancey Street. In a man more vicious, this anger might have made a gangster. In a man more conventional, it might have led to the kind of ambition that drove so many slum children to escape by rising in the commercial machinery that oppressed their families. Miller just hurled words.
No Pioneer.— Thanks to its lubricious reputation, Cancer had wide sales—partly because of publicity-making struggles with local censors (notably in Los Angeles and Maryland). Capricorn may ring up the money too, especially since Grove Press this time will give no financial support to bookstores prosecuted for violating obscenity codes. In the long run, though, the only question likely to be raised about both books is "What is all the fuss about?" As a pornographer, Miller has been surpassed. As a critic of America, he is a gadfly with delusions of grandeur, an ineffectual rebel who can never make up his mind whether to stick out his tongue or take to the barricades.