Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer arguably generated more notoriety than any other work of modern literature. First published in Paris in 1934 and later released in the United States in 1961, Tropic of Cancer is a novel so sexually explicit its publication helped to set the trajectory of literary censorship in the United States.

Tropic of Cancer is a semiautobiographical novel that details Miller's struggles in Paris as an emotionally fraught and impoverished author. Switching between timelines and incorporating figures from the author's life, Tropic of Cancer implements many of the literary techniques—such as stream of consciousness—representative of the modernist movement. Despite Miller's literary aptitude and acclaimed writing style, the explicit content of his text would lead many to view it as pornography rather than art, leading to lengthy court battles and prolonged bans.

1. Tropic of Cancer was banned in the United States for nearly 30 years.

At the time of its publication, Tropic of Cancer was met with extreme backlash and attempts to restrict its sales because of its sexually explicit content. Though the novel was banned in the United States for almost 30 years, unable to be legally distributed until 1961, the legal hurdles the novel eventually overcame made it a prime example of success in the face of censorship. This led many critics to consider Tropic of Cancer a milestone in achieving free speech in literature. James Decker, a Miller scholar and author of the biography Henry Miller: New Perspectives (2015), noted Miller is to thank for the "free speech that we now take for granted in literature."

2. Tropic of Cancer was the subject of obscenity trials across the United States.

Although published in Paris, Tropic of Cancer faced its greatest challenges in the U.S. market, where it was challenged and banned repeatedly. The book was initially classified as pornography, a designation that led to many lengthy legal proceedings. It took until 1961 for the ban to be lifted, as only smuggled copies were available in the United States prior to the Grove Press edition. This edition was defended by famous attorney Charles Rembar, who had successfully spearheaded defenses of banned literature in the past, including D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, published in 1928.

Rembar summed up his defense argument with the statement, "Pornography is in the groin of the beholder." After the 1961 edition of Tropic of Cancer was available legally, Miller allegedly regretted losing his status as "America's most censored author," even though there were more than 50 cases of booksellers sued for the explicit content in the next few years. On the subject of the trials, Miller once said:

One can't get bored with sex. But one is bored with making such a tremendous issue about it.

3. Tropic of Cancer faced challenges and bans outside the United States as well.

Tropic of Cancer was sexually provocative enough to receive criticism and be subject to bans around the globe. In 1961—the same year the book became available legally in the United States—Canadian officials demanded the Toronto Public Library surrender four smuggled copies of the novel. Tropic of Cancer had been banned in Canada since 1938, and the official in charge of the summons (who had not read the novel) stated, "Any self-respecting public library shouldn't have [Tropic of Cancer] on its shelves." Tropic of Cancer was also banned in the United Kingdom, and many copies printed prior to 1961 bore stickers stating specifically, "For subscription: Not to be imported into Great Britain or U.S.A."

4. Passages in Tropic of Cancer contain word-for-word letters from Miller's best friend.

Miller knew his closest friend, Emil Schnellock, from their childhood together in Brooklyn. After Miller departed for Paris, he and Schnellock corresponded through letters for years. Their correspondence was so lengthy over time Miller decided to repurpose some of the letters, including them as such verbatim passages in Tropic of Cancer as Miller's descriptions of life in Paris. Miller never forgot Schnellock's final gesture before his Paris departure—Schnellock gave him $10, which was the only money he had when he began his long trip abroad.

5. One of Miller's friends depicted in Tropic of Cancer called the novel "sordid dunghill."

Miller incorporated the wide array of eccentric figures he met in Paris into Tropic of Cancer. Though he changed the names of his friends, Miller stated bluntly, "all my characters have been real, taken from life, my own life." One notable inclusion was the character Boris, who was modeled on Miller's friend Michael Fraenkel. Fraenkel and Miller met shortly after the author's arrival in Paris, and Fraenkel sheltered the penniless Miller while he attempted to start his writing career. Despite their friendship, Fraenkel was reportedly not a fan of Tropic of Cancer, referring to it as "repugnant and sordid dunghill." Miller also included his estranged wife, June, as the character Mona, whom he remembers regretfully.

6. Miller's original title for Tropic of Cancer was much more explicit.

Tropic of Cancer's explicit content caused a great deal of backlash from officials, but Miller's original title for the novel was much more transgressive. Miller intended for his book to be entitled Crazy Cock, referencing the sexual debauchery throughout the text. Although the French publisher, Obelisk Press, specialized in soft-core pornography and other works that were too risqué for American and British markets, they encouraged Miller to change the title to something a bit less explicit.

7. A 1970 film adaptation was the result of Miller winning a game of ping-pong with a director.

Tropic of Cancer was adapted into a 1970 film by director Robert Evans. In his biography, Evans explains how a game of ping-pong led to the film's creation. During the game, Evans insisted he couldn't adapt his friend's novel for the screen due to its winding plot and sexually explicit content, but he agreed to play for it anyway. Miller declared, "I win—you get Tropic of Cancer onto the screen." If Evans won, Miller agreed to write 12 raunchy letters to women Evans wanted to sleep with. Miller won the bet, and the film was made.

8. An American bookseller was imprisoned for selling a special edition of Tropic of Cancer.

Prior to the lifting of the novel's U.S. ban in 1961, Americans could only buy illegally imported copies of Tropic of Cancer. At this time, there was a lucrative market for smuggled books that faced bans or censorship in the United States, and Frances Steloff was a pioneer of the illicit book trade. Steloff founded the Gotham Book Mart in New York City, where she sold smuggled novels from overseas starting in 1920. Along with famous banned tomes such as Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Steloff acquired copies of Tropic of Cancer for distribution. Another notable book smuggler, Jacob Brussel, had his store raided by police in 1940. Brussel was imprisoned for three years for selling copies of the notorious "Medusa edition" of Tropic of Cancer, which violated copyright laws and falsely claimed to have been published in Mexico.

9. At the time, the typescript for Tropic of Cancer commanded the highest price for any modern manuscript in the United States.

In 1986 Sotheby's auctioned off an original typescript of Tropic of Cancer for $165,000. At the time, this was the highest sum ever paid for a novel's original manuscript. The buyer, John Fleming, was a renowned dealer of rare books and said of his purchase:

I think it is a tremendously influential work on the modern interpretation of life, morality, woman and sex. It has its place in modern times.

10. Miller began writing during his day job at Western Union.

Before moving to Paris to seek the romantic life of a writer abroad, Miller worked a mundane job at Western Union, a financial services and telegram company, in New York City. Extremely bored with the position, Miller started writing during his downtime at the company's messenger department. Although Miller would only achieve fame after his move to Europe, he once said of his youth in New York:

I was born in the street and raised in the street ... In the street you learn what human beings really are.

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