September 30 through October 6 marks Banned Books Week 2012, promoting and celebrating our freedom to read and access information. So it was only appropriate that the September selection for the Brown Baggers was Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. First published in Paris in 1934, the book was banned in the U.S. and was routinely seized by customs agents. A series of state obscenity lawsuits ensued in the 1960s when Grove Press published an American edition, finally culminating in a Supreme Court ruling. While this decision was not the famed “know it when I see it” pornography case (that’d be Jacobellis vs. Ohio), the two cases were decided on the same day in 1964.
The Brown Baggers are no strangers to banned books or those once considered obscene, but many group members hesitated to place Tropic of Cancer on the same lofty pedestal Lolita or Lady Chatterley’s Lover (both previous Brown Bag selections). Some argued that while there may have been explicit scenes in each book, any conceived “vulgarities” served to enhance or enrich the worthwhile Nabokov or Lawrence texts. In Miller, the graphic details may have been integral – but only because they were the point full stop, not serving a greater one. Of course, this opinion was not unanimous but it certainly prevailed.
Although the book was previously challenged on its obscenities, many agreed that it was not terribly shocking compared to the standards of today. Even passages that could still be considered overtly explicit quickly lost their power due to sheer repetition. We noted that the book’s eventual publication coincided with the sexual revolution in the 1960s, which possibly explains the book’s popularity. Many group members expressed surprise that this book was and is so highly regarded by other revered authors and reputable critical institutions. As we pondered, it was suggested that perhaps this book resonated with a specific subset of readers with similar artistic temperaments, especially the friends and contemporaries of Miller. We also spiritedly debated whether books should be celebrated only for their influence or if they must stand alone against the test of time. Opinions may vary, but our lively discussion seemed to indicate that in many ways, Tropic of Cancer is still relevant.
Further reading and information:
The Henry Miller Memorial Library
Locally, the University of Virginia has a collection of letters from Miller concerning a donation he made. Find out more here.
The Devil at Large by Erica Jong
Henry and June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin
And just for fun, you may remember a certain Seinfeld episode focusing on Miller’s books – and the library!
Join us October 18th at noon to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.