The Banning of Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer

Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read.  Supported by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the event brings together librarians, booksellers, publishers, teachers, and readers of all types and ages who wish to maintain the public’s right to seek out and express ideas, even those deemed unpopular. BBW will be held this year on September 27th-October 3rd.  In reviewing the history of publications that have been banned in the United States, I decided to write a brief history of the copies of Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer found in Special Collections, hoping to illuminate how books can be kept from the reading public.


Tropic of Cancer (1953 edition) dust jacket

The dust jacket of the 1953 edition of The Tropic of Cancer, printed by Tokyo publisher Keimeisha, indicates to purchasers the work is uncensored and not for import into the U.S.A. or England – Gotham West, Frances Steloff Collection. PS3525.I5454 T7 1900z

In 1972, New Mexico voters passed a $10,000,000 bond to purchase library materials for the state’s universities and colleges.  Beginning in 1974, New Mexico State University’s library received $2,000,000 over a five-year period to purchase books.  Contacted by the world-famous Gotham Book Mart in midtown Manhattan, regarding the sale of most of the store’s used literary inventory, university leaders found the offer economically sound and an ideal way to increase the library shelves with arts and humanities titles.  Frances Steloff founded Gotham Book Mart in 1920 and it gained a reputation as a major avant-garde literary hub and one of the top bookstores in the world with its deep catalog of books for sale.


On March 6, 1975, the University Regents approved the $485,000 bid to purchase 200,000 items from Gotham Book Mart – one of the largest book sales in United States retail history.  The library increased its print holdings by 50%, at an average cost of $2.42 a book.   The sale included first editions of modern American and British literature, cinema, theater, dance, and art, many of which were no longer in print. Over the next decade, the library added over 100,000 titles to its shelves.  Most titles are housed in Zuhl Library, although hundreds of rare works were placed in the Special Collections Department in Branson Library.


Among the materials obtained from the Gotham Book Mart purchase are works that challenged the concept of free speech and evoked the ire of governmental customs and postal services, school boards, library trustees, and religious leaders from around the world for the author’s inclusion of controversial “adult themes” and explicit content.  These “banned books” include such literary figures as Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, and perhaps most famously, Henry Miller.  Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, deemed obscene when published in 1934, would become one of the most censored books in history, setting off a nearly thirty year effort to see the work sold legally in the United States.


Tropique du Cancer (1947 edition) frontispiece

The frontispiece of the 1947 edition of The Tropique du Cancer, printed by Paris publisher Deux-Rives, is one of only 750 copies and includes 24 color lithograph plates that illustrate the text. – Gotham West, Frances Steloff Collection. PS3525.I5454 T74 1947

Combining fiction with autobiography, Miller details his bohemian and nomadic life in Paris during the late 1920s and early 1930s.  The author, encouraged to write as he lived, felt and thought, describes in detail his exploits as a struggling writer and his interaction with equally rootless friends, all living very debauched and lonely lifestyles.  The work of candid sexuality, salacious hijinks, and frank discussions of socially transmitted infections, all told via a disinterested point of view, was written within a few months’ time.  Championed by author Anaïs Nin, the author’s lover, who financially backed its publication with Paris’ Obelisk Press in 1934, it found acclaim among the literary scene, including George Orwell and H.L. Mencken, and later with many of the beatnik generation.  However, from its initial print run, controversy ensued. Even in the City of Light, booksellers sold the novel under the counter.  The British and American governments soon banned its import because it challenged models of sexual morality – even expanding that ban to include all works by Miller.


Bookseller Frances Steloff, a champion of free expression and friend of many writers and poets, recalled the 1939 correspondence she had with Henry Miller.  The author offered to sell Steloff first and second editions of his work to help fund his move from Paris to Greece:

“Both The Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring were banned in this country, and I still didn’t see what good it was to have the books in Paris, but there they were.  After serious deliberation, I called the New York office of our French jobber, and it was arranged that the Paris office would hold the books until we could find a way of getting them here.  But there must have been a misunderstanding in the Paris office because not long afterward I got a hysterical phone call from the jobber here that one of the cases in a large shipment from France that contained the twenty copies of The Tropic of Cancer had been opened by our customs!  I told the jobber that I would take full responsibility and cover all the expense, but I was just about as hysterical as he was.  I had been in close touch with Anaïs Nin, and she suggested that I write to Huntington Cairns in the State Department in Washington.  After some days of deliberation, he suggested that we could have the books returned to Paris – or we could have them forwarded to Mexico.  I wrote to Michael Frankel, who was living in Mexico City then.  He agreed to accept the books, and eventually they got to him.  Then friends going to Mexico picked them up, one at a time, and brought them to New York.” [Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 4 no. 4, April 1975: p.809]


Tropic of Cancer (1961 edition) dust jacket

Dust jacket of the 1961 edition of The Tropic of Cancer, printed by New York City publisher Grove Press. The printing of the first authorized publication in the United States resulted in numerous criminal and civil court proceedings. PS3525.I5454 T7 1961

In the years following Tropic’s publication, Miller struggled financially as the embargo on his work reduced his income all while various publishers attempted to circumvent official scrutiny.  Copies of the novel continued to be smuggled into England and the U.S., while American copyright-infringers attempted to capitalize on the eager market with unauthorized versions, ostensibly printed in Mexico.  Attempts by the ACLU to reverse the import ban saw the courts reject the lawsuit in 1951 and again on appeal in 1953, calling the book the “unprintable word of the debased and morally bankrupt.”  In 1961, printer Barney Rosset of Grove Press offered Miller a large advance and legal representation if allowed to be the first authorized American publisher of Tropic of Cancer.  The press, founded in 1949, specialized in politically controversial and sexually explicit books.  While over 2 million copies were distributed and it became a bestseller, over ¾ were returned as between 40 and 100 legal cases in 21 states arose against distributors and booksellers in violation of pornography and obscenity laws.  Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno described Miller’s work as, “a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”  Grove Press claimed to have spent over $100,000 in legal expenses fighting criminal and civil cases regarding the book.  Finally on June 22, 1964, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Grove Press v. Gerstein, 378 U.S. 577 (1964) that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene due to its literary merits, thereby dismissing the lower court decisions and providing space for the work to be regarded as an important piece of 20th-century American literature.


To learn more about censorship and book banning, including Banned Book Week events at NMSU, visit NMSU LibGuides.  To learn more about the life of author Henry Miller, the following titles are available for checkout in Zuhl Library:

Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller: An Unauthorized Biography by Jay Martin PS3525.I5454 Z716

My Friend, Henry Miller: An Intimate Biography by Alfred Perles PS3525.I5454 Z8 1956

The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller by Mary V. Dearborn PS3525.I5454 Z6595 1991

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