Tropic of Cancer was first published in Paris in 1934. Few other novels of the century have created as much of a stir. Some writers, including Anais Nin, proclaimed it a work of genius, while others were baffled; critics began to bicker about its flaws and merits, and its explicit nature became a subject of intense debate. Was this book pornography, or was it a work of literature?
Four years after the book’s initial release, Tropic of Cancer was banned by the United States government. The argument was that Miller described his sexual exploits in too explicit a manner, and that the book was sexually immoral. The government was so incensed that it extended the ban to include all of Miller’s subsequent works. The ban was not lifted until 1961, when Elmer Gertz, a lawyer who would become one of Miller’s close friends, defended the publication of Tropic of Cancer in Illinois – and won. Despite the ruling, the anti-Miller faction did not go away without a fight. Tropic of Cancer was still officially labeled “obscene”, and Chicago police even intimidated bookstores that chose to carry the book. Throughout 1961, Grove Press, the book’s publisher, had to mount about sixty lawsuits to protect the book, with the ACLU on its side. It took a Supreme Court decision, in 1964, to declare Tropic of Cancer not obscene, and it was decades more before the book was finally canonized as a classic.
Many benchmarks of nineteenth and twentieth-century fiction have faced resistance or run afoul of moralists: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, and Catcher in the Rye, to name just a few. But Tropic of Cancer remains in a league of its own, so fierce was its opposition. A few book vendors selling the novel in the U.S. were arrested; thousands of dollars in legal battles had to be spent to protect it. The 1964 Supreme Court ruling proved a milestone in the push-back of literary censorship across the board. It is not an exaggeration to say that many subsequent books may not have seen the light of day were it not for Miller’s novel and its effect on the public.
Beyond its significance to the world of law, Tropic of Cancer also broke new literary ground. It ignored conventional divisions between fact and fiction and autobiography and invention, and blurred the lines between prose and essay. It remains today a strange and captivating masterpiece, like little else in literature (save for other Henry Miller novels), and over seventy years after it was written, it has lost little of its original punch. Told with wit and bombast, Cancer is Miller’s account of his years in Paris, and it is one of the definitive statements of the so-called “Lost Generation” – a work of caustic humor and wine-soaked compassion.