Henry Miller is one of the most important literary figures in American history, but most people don’t even know his name. His was a true underdog story: a creative and challenging author who influenced such literary and pop culture icons as Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, Paul Theroux, Erica Jong, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles; but today, 34 years after his death, he remains a marginalized and largely forgotten figure in the footnotes of literature- all because his work was banned from the moment it saw the printed page.
Tropic of Cancer has been described as “notorious for its candid sexuality” and noted as responsible for the “free speech that we now take for granted in literature.”
Anaïs Nin helped to edit the book and Obelisk Press published it with financial backing from Nin, herself, in 1934 in Paris, France. The book’s jacket was wrapped with a warning that read, “NOT TO BE IMPORTED INTO THE UNITED STATES OR GREAT BRITAIN.” Even in liberal Paris, bookstores sold the novel under the counter; but as word spread, copies were bought by American tourists and smuggled home disguised under dust jackets from other books.
The government of the United States made it national policy to ban Tropic of Cancer from being sold or imported into the country arguing, “[it] dealt too explicitly with his sexual adventures and challenged models of sexual morality.” To push their agenda, the government went on to ban all of Miller’s works from entering the United States, regardless of its content or subject.
Set in Paris, France during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tropic of Cancer is written in the first person and follows Miller’s life and struggle as a writer. Combining autobiography and fiction, some chapters follow a narrative and refer to Miller’s actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces; others are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections that are occasionally epiphanic.
Miller gave the following explanation of why the book’s title was Tropic of Cancer: “[It was] because, to me, cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.”
The long, twisted road of censorship in the decades to follow is quite sordid.
Upon publication in France and the subsequent banning by the United States Customs Service, Frances Steloff sold copies of the novel at her Gotham Book Mart that were smuggled from Paris during the 1930s, leading to several lawsuits.
A copyright-infringing edition published in New York City in 1940 by “Medusa” (Jacob Brussel) included a last page that claimed its place of publication to be Mexico. Brussel was ultimately sentenced to three years in prison for it.
In 1950, Ernest Besig, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, attempted to import copies of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Customs detained the novels and Besig sued the government. Before the case went to trial, Besig requested a motion to admit 19 depositions from literary critics testifying to the “literary value of the novels and to Miller’s stature as a serious writer”.The motion was denied by Judge Louis A. Goodman and the case went to trial with Goodman presiding. Goodman declared both novels obscene and Besig appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, where they were once again declared “obscene” in a unanimous decision in Besig v. United States.
Miller, himself, mailed copies of the book to prominent American literary figures hoping for reviews and word of mouth. One of those was to an American friend that intercepted by a Customs official and ended up on the desk of Huntington Cairns, a Baltimore attorney who served as a legal advisor to the U.S. Treasury Department. Cairns, an erudite who counted among his friends H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, read the book and, with some reluctance, banned it. Cairns recognized the literary merit of Tropic of Cancer, but was certain that under prevailing standards of decency, it could not be admitted.
When it was finally published in the U.S. in 1961, by Grove Press, it led to infamous obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. Over 60 obscenity lawsuits in over 21 states were brought against booksellers. The opinions of courts varied; for example, in his dissent from the majority holding that the book was not obscene, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno wrote that Cancer is “not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”
Both national and local authorities attempted to stop its sale. In the fall of 1961, Chicago police would routinely intimidate bookstores found to sell the book, arresting several workers. Grove Press, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that it was illegal for officials to interfere with the sale of the novel and spent more than $100,000 fighting these charges nationwide.
Publisher Barney Rosset hired lawyer Charles Rembar to help lead the “effort to assist every bookseller prosecuted, regardless of whether there was a legal obligation to do so”.Rembar successfully argued two appeals cases, in Massachusetts and New Jersey, although the book continued to be judged obscene in other states.
In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the book was not obscene and it was widely- and finally- regarded as an important masterpiece of 20th-century literature. In Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, the case Jacobellis v. Ohio (which was decided the same day) was cited and given as reason for overruling state court rulings.
Miller enjoyed no sense of fulfillment from the ruling because he knew that American readers were consuming his books for their sensationalistic elements and missing the liberating message of deliverance from hypocrisy and shame that lay behind them. In a 1972 interview with Digby Diehl published in the Los Angeles Times Miller declared, “More and more I’ve grown disgusted with my readers. I revealed everything about myself, and I find that they’re interested in this sensational life. But I was trying to give them more than that.”
True to that theme, it exists as an immersive reflection on the human condition. As a struggling writer, Miller describes his experience living among a community of bohemians in Paris, where he deals with hunger, homelessness, squalor, loneliness, and despair over his separation from his wife.
Many passages also explicitly describe his sexual encounters. In 1978, literary scholar Donald Gutierrez argued that the sexual comedy in the book was “undeniably low… [but with] a stronger visceral appeal than high comedy”. In fact, the semi-fictional characters are caricatures, especially the male characters who “stumble through the mazes of their conceptions of woman”.
Michael Hardin made the case for the theme of homophobia in the novel and proposed that the novel contained a “deeply repressed homoerotic desire that periodically surfaces”.
It remains listed by the American Library Association as one of the 100 most-banned classics and has been censored outside of the U.S. as well.
It was on the list of books banned by Canadian customs as of 1938 and The Royal Canadian Mounted Police seized copies of the book from bookstores and public libraries until the early 1960s when, by 1964, public opinions began to shift.
The only copies to exist in the United Kingdom were those few smuggled in after its publication in 1934. Scotland Yard proposed banning its publication in Britain in the 1960s, but decided the act would be political suicide because nationally celebrated literary icons such as T. S. Eliot were ready to defend the book publicly.
Tropic was also banned in Turkey as recently as 1986.
Henry Miller’s writing was a revolutionary literary style that reimagined the semi-autobiographical genre by blending character study, social commentary, philosophical introspection, explicit language, and sexual themes that are instantly recognizable and relatable to anyone who has ever stepped outside their own front door into the real world.
The only thing obscene about Tropic of Cancer is that it contains those subjects and language that society wishes to keep hidden and pretend does not exist as prevalently as they always have in human history. Detractors aren’t upset about others in society being influenced by the themes in Miller’s works; they’re worried about seeing something inside themselves reflected back up from between the stark contrasts of the black and white of the printed page.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/