Banned Books Week: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Likely one of the most frequently censored books in the history of American literature, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is a lascivious romp involving Miller's expatriate exploits among the world of writers and artists in early 1930s Paris. The book was first published in Paris in 1934 by Obelisk Press, publishers of books that were considered controversial in England and the US, such as Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. Prior to 1961, Tropic of Cancer was distributed in the US only by those determined enough to smuggle the book into the country. It wasn't until a United States Supreme Court ruling nearly 30 years after its initial publication that Tropic of Cancer could be legally sold and distributed in the U.S.
Prior to Tropic of Cancer, Miller had written the more modest novel Crazy Cock. After receiving feedback from his literary advisor Michael Fraenkel to "Write as you talk. Write as you live. Write as you feel and think." Miller felt liberated enough to produce Tropic of Cancer within a few months time. Its pages unfurl in a fury of free association, blunt debauchery, and rootless characters in search of the next mate and meal. Miller was constantly broke throughout the '30s and '40s because he did not profit from sales of Tropic of Cancer, despite having received critical acclaim from George Orwell and Edmund Wilson, who called it "the most interesting American novel to come out of Paris" in years.
By the 1950s, there was a firm coalition of beatniks, writers, and academics championing Henry Miller; UCLA began to collect materials related to Miller's life in 1954. Barney Rosset of the Grove Press offered Henry Miller a sizeable advance to be the first publisher of Tropic of Cancer in the USA, and promised to defend him against any legal battles that might ensue after the book's publication. Miller was reluctant at first to give up his role as American's most censored author, but he eventually consented. Grove Press finally published Tropic of Cancer in the US in 1961. They sold over 1 million copies the first year, but ¾ million were returned to the publisher, attracting more than 50 criminal cases against wholesalers and booksellers due to the obscene content.
Grove Press spent over $100,000 defending Tropic of Cancer in both criminal and civil suits. In June 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene, and could be sold and distributed throughout the United States. Would-be censors have mostly lost their interest in suppressing the book since then, which Miller nicely sums up in an interview, "One can't get bored with sex. But one is bored with making such a tremendous issue about it."