Mounties bring library to task over racy novel
RCMP swooped in on VPL in search of Miller’s sexy Tropic of Cancer
October 13th, 1961, fell on a Friday. And it was definitely unlucky for Vancouver fans of writer Henry Miller.
“RCMP RAIDS LIBRARY IN HUNT FOR NOVEL,” screamed a giant front-page headline in The Vancouver Sun.
“Royal Canadian Mounted Police swooped down on bookstores and the Vancouver Public Library Friday in a hunt for copies of author Henry Miller’s sex-in-Paris novel, Tropic of Cancer.
“They were armed with a littleused blanket warrant called a ‘writ of assistance’ which enables them to enter public buildings, commercial establishments and even private homes to search for the controversial novel.
“Two plainclothes officers seized one volume at Duthie Books and learned three other volumes were in circulation from the public library.”
Ironically, the cops found out it was in town because a library employee had “telephoned customs officials to ask if Tropic of Cancer was on the banned list.”
Tropic of Cancer was one of the most controversial books of the 20th century. It was published in Paris in 1934, in a limited run of 1,000 copies. But the “sex-packed confession of Bohemian life in Paris” quickly became notorious and was banned most everywhere, including in Canada and the States. This only enhanced its allure for readers who were curious about Miller, an American expatriate.
“The high praise of T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson and Herbert Read made it contraband of uncommon quality,” wrote Harry T. Moore in the New York Times in 1961.
As a result, many people hunted down the book when in France and smuggled it back into their homeland. The ban on importing the book to the U.S. was finally lifted in 1959. Grove Press printed the first American edition in the summer of 1961.
“Copies of the book now are being brought into (Canada) by travellers and in routine book shipments,” The Sun reported on Oct. 14, 1961. But the authorities were on the lookout: An RCMP spokesman said the Mounties had “been instructed to find and seize the books whenever possible.”
The Canadian ban was finally lifted in 1964. But all the hubbub gave Tropic of Cancer even more notoriety, giving the underground classic mainstream sales decades after it was written.
“The book survived scores of legal challenges and became Miller’s biggest financial success,” Steve Emmons wrote in the Los Angeles Times when Miller died in 1980.
“’I’m no longer obscene,” Miller observed, “just pornographic.”
Miller was born in New York on Dec. 26, 1891. After his second divorce, he moved to Paris in 1930 and fell in with a bohemian crew that provided fodder for Tropic of Cancer.
“Its engaging first-person narrative, the monologue of a man who draws people to him, tells the story of an American expatriate — not a Henry James gentleman in a Place Vendome hotel, but rather a Left Bank vagabond merrily sponging on his friends,” Moore wrote in the New York Times.
“All of them, particularly the narrator, have frequent erotic adventures with every type of woman, from the local poules to rich American widows … yet with cinematic abruptness, the narrative often switches from amatory scenes to lyric evocations of the faubourg soft in the dusk or the river streaked with lights.”
Miller left Paris in 1940 and settled in Big Sur, Calif., home to another bohemian world.
“He has gathered around him a group of misfits and escapists, painters, dancers and writers whose dubious claims to genius are to some extent based on the theory that the world owes them a living,” Harrison Smith wrote in the Saturday Review in 1957.
In 1963, Miller moved to Los Angeles where he lived until he died on June 7, 1980, at the age of 88. He was married five times, had three kids, and left an estate of $500,000.
Tropic of Cancer was his biggest success, but he wrote several more successful novels, including Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus and Plexus. A first edition of Tropic of Cancer by Oberlisk Press from 1934 is for sale for US$17,500 on AbeBooks.
“I’d say 85 per cent of what I wrote was my life,” Miller said in 1974. “It wasn’t lying.”
The front of the Oct. 14, 1961 Sun features the library story. Police found out the book was in town because a library employee had “telephoned customs officials to ask if Tropic of Cancer was on the banned list.”