Lecture 5

[Henry Miller & Friend]

Henry Miller:
Tropic of Cancer (1934)


Anthology Texts:

History of the Ban:

Tropic of Cancer was first published in Paris in 1934 and remained officially banned from the United States for three decades, but college students smuggled thousands of copies into the United States in that time until Grove Press published the novel in the United States. Of nearly two million copies of the book distributed, nearly three-quarters of a million were returned to the publisher. The book was involved in at least 40 criminal cases against wholesalers and booksellers, even after the federal government refused to ban the hook, An untold number of civil suits to suppress the book have also occurred, as have "voluntary" withdrawals from sale after local intimidation.

In 1950, Ernest Besig, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, attempted to import both Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn into the United States and initiated the first court case involving the novels. Citing Section 1305 of the United States Code, Customs department officials held the books 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, who stated bluntly:

In my opinion the dominant effect of the two respondent hooks is obscene. Both books are replete with long passages that are filthy and revolting and that tend to excite lustful thoughts and desires. While the books also have passages, and indeed chapters, that may be said to have literary merit, the obscene portions have no literary value; they are directly, completely and wholly filthy and obscene and have no reasonable relation to any literary concept inherent in the books' theme.

The case went to trial without a jury in 1951 with Judge Goodman presiding. Despite the presentation by Besig of literary reviews of Miller's work and the statements from critics describing the literary merits of the books, the judge condemned the books and declared them obscene. In closing statements, Judge Goodman wrote,

The many long filthy descriptions of sexual experiences, practices and organs are of themselves admitted to be lewd .... It is sufficient to say that the many obscene passages in the books have such an evil stench that to include them here in footnotes would make this opinion pornographic. ... There are several passages where the female sexual organ and its function are described and referred to in such detailed and vulgar language as to create nausea in the reader. If this be importable literature, then the dignity of the human person and the stability of the family unit, which are the cornerstones of society, are lost to us.

Besig appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and on October 23, 1953, the novels were again declared "obscene" by a unanimous decision in Besig v. United States, 208 F. 2d 142 (9th Cir. 1953). In his written decision, Circuit Judge Albert Lee Stephens characterized the books as being the "unprintable word of the debased and morally bankrupt" and claimed that, even taken as a whole, they lacked literary merit. He stated:

Practically everything that the world loosely regards as sin is detailed in the vivid, lurid, salacious language of smut, prostitution, and dirt. And all of it is related without the slightest expressed idea of its abandon. Consistent with the general tenor of the books, even human excrement is dwelt upon in the dirtiest words possible.

The 1961 Grove Press edition of Tropic of Cancer attracted numerous later legal actions because no test case had been heard by the Supreme Court, as there had been in the case of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Grove Press delayed appealing the earliest cases to the Supreme Court, and the delay in securing a definitive judgment proved costly because the publishing firm committed itself to assisting every bookseller prosecuted. Five state courts declared the novel "obscene" in State v. Huntington, no. 24657, Super. Ct., Hartford County, Conn. (1962) (Connecticut); Grove Press, Inc. v. Florida, 156, So. 2d 537 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1963) (Florida); Haiman v. Morris, Ill. Sup. Ct., June 18, 1964 (opinion not printed; later withdrawn) (Illinois); Commonwealth v. Robin, no. 3177, C.P. Phila Co. Penn. (1962) (Pennsylvania): and People v. Fritch, 13 N.Y.2d 119, 192 N.E.2d 713 (1963) (4-3 decision) New York). Within the same period, California, Massachusetts and Wisconsin declared the novel "not obscene" in Zeitlin v. Arnebergh, 31 Cal. 800, 383 P.2d 152 (1963)(unanimous); Attorney General v. Book Named "Tropic of Cancer," 345 Mass. 11, 184 N.E.2 d 328 (1962) (4-3 decision); and McCauley v. Tropic of Cancer, 20 Wise. 2d 134, 121 N.W.2d 545 (1963) (4-3 decision).

On June 22, 1964, in a 5 to 4 decision in Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, 378 U.S. 577 (1964), the United States Supreme Court reversed the Florida decision of Grove Press, Inc. v. Florida, 156 So. 2d 537 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1963). The judgment was reversed by a per curiam order in which Justice William J. Brennan Jr. declared that "material dealing with sex in a manner that advocates ideas, or that has literary or scientific or artistic value or any other form of social importance, may not be branded as obscenity and denied the constitutional protection."

– Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald & Dawn B. Sova, 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature (New York: Checkmark Books, 1999): 325-27.


This is clearly crucial for Miller – and certainly for subsequent readers and commentators. Paris (later on Big Sur) was regarded as his “territory” in the same way that Hardy’s Wessex or Dickens’s London were identified with a particular novelist.

Though he may have welcomed, and even consciously fostered this identification at first, he certainly shied away from its somewhat-belittling implications in later years. Again, the identification with the provincial-turned-cosmopolitan Roman Virgil is important here.

I should note further that by “setting” I mean location in place and time.

[Henry and June]

Workshop 5:
Inside the Whale

We'll begin with the book report on Tropic of Cancer, then move on to do the class exercise in pairs or small groups.

Exercise 5:
Where is Francis?

[W. H. Auden & Christopher Isherwood: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935)]

The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis? A Play in Three Acts, by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, was the first Auden-Isherwood collaboration and an important contribution to English poetic drama in the 1930s. It was published in 1935 and first performed by the Group Theatre in 1936.

The play describes the quest by the hero Alan Norman to find Sir Francis Crewe, the missing heir of Honeypot Hall in Crewe. The quest takes him on a satiric journey through Europe and England, accompanied by a large dog, who proves to be Sir Francis in disguise. Auden and Isherwood wrote two versions of the end of the play. In Ishwerwood's version, which appears in the printed text, Sir Francis denounces the villagers and leaves to join a vaguely-defined revolutionary movement. In Auden's revised version, which was performed on stage, Sir Francis denounces the villagers and is killed.

  • The play has been performed at different times, with very different messages.
  • Does it seem to you to offer any analogies with Miller's notes from "inside the whale"?

Next week:

Group 4: Book report on The Power and the Glory due.

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