Moun­ties bring li­brary to task over racy novel

RCMP swooped in on VPL in search of Miller’s sexy Tropic of Can­cer

Vancouver Sun - - CITY - JOHN MACKIE jmackie@post­media.com

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.”

It was.

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.”

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