Tropic of Cancer and Our Tryst with Draconian Censorship

In honor of Banned Books Week , I’ve decided dedicate a post to a novel defamed and banned in a nation hailed as the ‘bastion of liberty’.

Story-telling is one of the greatest skills our species has cultivated throughout the course of our existence. From our ancient epic sagas to those nostalgic, long-cherished bedtime tales, stories have nourished our minds and rejuvenated our spirits. By a stroke of a pen, a writer, geared only with his wit and creativity, could give birth to dozens of intriguing characters who, while existing within a figment of the imagination, are anything but imaginary.

What if a writer was informed that his novel could not be shared with his readers? What if you, as an literary enthusiast, was told by your government that you were banned from reading a certain book? What if every media outlet, from newspapers to cable news, disparaged a certain story as ‘scandalous’ and ‘reprehensible’?

Wouldn’t you be outraged? After all, what right did government officials have in instructing you on what to read? Who certified journalists and media pundits the credentials to dictate what is scandalous?

In 21st Century American, it’s easy to get aggravated and enraged at the preponderance of virtue signalling and sanctimonious moralizing in the name of ‘checking your privilege’. However, only a few decades ago, your freedom of expression was actually at risk. This country was governed by a bureaucratic administration dedicated to controlling our minds through censorship in the name of baseball, apple pie and the American Way.

We’ll be coverning  a novel which was considered to be one of the most salacious literary works. Tropic of Cancer is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Henry Miller.

Now, here’s a fun fact. The original title was intended to be ‘Cracy Cock’! However, in order to negotiate with the average reader’s penilephobia, Miller thought it was prudent to pick a different title (at least that’s my assumption).

Miller’s intention was not to write a novel in the ‘ordinary sense of the word’. Tropic of Cancer was meant to be ‘song’ or an epic poem, like Beowulf but with more ass-fucking!

The narrative chronicles Miller’s years in Paris living within a community of bohemians as he struggles with the separation from his wife. The overall story serves as a reflection of the human condition.

Miller unhesitatingly writes about his numerous sexual encounters, which, despite being described with low-brow imagery, had a peculiar visceral appeal. Many literary scholars, including Micheal Hardin, have proposed that the novel contained a ‘deeply repressed homoerotic desire that periodically resurfaced”.

The novel was published in Paris in 1934. Unfortunately, due to its unconventional and risque subject matter, Tropic of Cancer was banned by the United States Customs Service. The prohibition, however, did not stop a Manhattan-based bookseller named Frances Steloff from smuggling copies of Tropic of Cancer and selling them at her Gotham Book Mart. Ernest Besig, director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in San Francisco, launched a lawsuit against the government in attempts to remove the ban. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful.

In lieu of the controversy regarding Tropic of Cancer, numerous writers and journalists praised Henry Miller’s work. Baltimore-based journalist H.L. Mencken commended Henry Miller stating: “I read Tropic of Cancer a month ago. It seems to me to be a really excellent piece of work, and I so reported to the person who sent it to me. Of this, more when we meet”.

In 1961, Grove Press, an alternative publishing company in New York City,  released an edition of Tropic of Cancer that resulted in a series of obscenity trials challenging the American laws against pornography. In 1964, a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court declared Tropic of Cancer non-obscene, allowing it to be read by millions of American.

Tropic of Cancer is undoubtedly a monumental novel that challenged mainstream notions of sexuality. The book played an impactful role in the Countercultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, Tropic of Cancer would be perceived as tame and unremarkable in shock value compared to contemporary literature and cinema. The chaotic episode involving Tropic of Cancer is a testimony to how far we have come.


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