Banned in the USA and the UK! The fascinating obscenity backstory behind the story (or, more accurately, the novel. And that’d be “Tropic of Cancer.”)

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Obviously we take things like artistic freedom for granted nowadays; wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Case in point. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.”

We all know it was a banned book; but the back story surrounding it’s banned-ness (?) – as articulated by this current exhibition at UT-Austin regarding obscenity in literature – is pretty interesting.

That's Range of Light Wilderness

And if Miller is our hero in this story, there naturally needs to be some villains. And that would be … Richard Millhouse Nixon.

JK y’all, our story starts before that. We’re talking the 30s, and a dude named John Saxton Sumner is the villain. In 1935, dude presided over the New York City Police Department’s annual burning of obscene literature. Over $150,000 worth of magazines, books, pamphlets, and postcards confiscated from publishers and booksellers went into the furnace, transforming them, as one newspaper noted, “from filth to smoke.”

Sumner, Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice,(!) had become one of the most recognizable figures in a nationwide effort to rid the country of offensive literature, and the book burning was just one manifestation of this vast, multifaceted movement.

Shakes fist and looks to sky: “Sumnerrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!”

Into this prudish crucible steps Miller. “Upon its publication in 1934, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was deemed obscene by the United States Customs Department and was not legally available in the United States. Editions were published in Japan and were smuggled into the U.S. to satisfy demand. Miller had been seeking an American publisher since 1934 and had hoped to defend Tropic of Cancer in court as early as 1936.

Local district attorneys, however, were not persuaded, and over 50 cases (!) against the novel were brought to various state and local courts. The ban on Miller’s work was finally lifted in 1964 after a Florida case made its way to the U. S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Tropic of Cancer may be legally sold and distributed throughout the United States.”

OK, class dismissed.

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