Dirt for Dirt's Sake: the trials of Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer"


In observance of Banned Books Week, the Brooklyn Collection offers this tale taken straight from the institutional archives of Brooklyn Public Library.

On July 11, 1963 a stern memo was distributed to every library throughout the borough of Brooklyn:




The New York State Court of Appeals ruled on July 10, 1963 that TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller is obscene under the New York State obscenity law.  The following action must be taken immediately:

  1. No copy is to be loaned to any branch or individual beginning immediately.
  2. No reserves can be taken on this title.
  3. Reserves which are being held by agencies for this title should be returned to the addressee through the mail with the following statement typed on the back of the postal "This reserve cannot be filled due to the decision of the New York State Court of Appeals - July 10, 1963"

After months of debate and controversy, the decision had come down from New York State's Court of Appeals: Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was banned.  Judge John F. Scileppi called the book "dirt for dirt's sake", which is almost a compliment compared to the more strongly worded opinion from Pennsylvania judge Michael Musmanno, who in 1966 described Tropic of Cancer as, "not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity." 

For those who haven't read this oft-banned tome, it is a first-person account of a writer's life in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, with many frank descriptions of sexual exploits. It was because of these that the book was banned in the United States after its original publication in 1934.  It was nearly 30 years later that the book was finally published in the United States, at which point obscenity trials popped up all over the country to keep the controversial novel out of readers' hands.

As a result of the New York Court of Appeals decision on July 10, 1963, anyone distributing, selling or even -- and of particular concern to libraries -- loaning Henry Miller's risque novel would be in violation of the law.  Brooklyn Public Library took immediate action to be in compliance; all copies of the book in the system (approxmately 400 total) were sent to the office of the Assistant Chief Librarian, Margaret Freeman, and all catalog cards indexing the book were removed from files. 

Without a catalog card like the one above, users of the library would have no way of knowing the library had ever held copies of Tropic of Cancer, much less if any of them were available for reading.

Memos from branch librarians poured in from all over the borough as staff worked to track down every last copy.

Even before the ruling, the book's position on Brooklyn Public Library shelves was tenuously held (which is especially unfortunate when you consider that the author grew up in this borough, at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg).  The Philadelphia Free Library withdrew its copies from circulation in December of 1961 in reaction to maneuvers by that city's District Attorney to have circulation suspended.  Throughout 1962 complaints rolled in from patrons concerned about children finding (and being corrupted by) the book in their local branch library while a flurry of letters between Brooklyn Public Library's Chief Librarian, Francis R. St. John, and heads of other institutions throughout the country grappled with the question of how to restrict access to the book to mature readers.  A staff memo from March of that year outlined a policy whereby catalog cards and index listings of the book would be excised from the record, but adult patrons who specifically asked for the book could reserve it. 

Francis R. St. John and Margaret Freeman were asked to testify on the issue before the Kings County Grand Jury in January of 1962.  After grilling Freeman on the ins and outs of Brooklyn Public Library's collection policy, Assistant District Attorney Louis Ernst gave her a copy of the book and asked her to read aloud a passage from page five in mixed company.  Freeman demurred, with the caveat that there are many books she would not read in mixed company.  Other questions centered on whether or not the book had a plot (Freeman's answer: "No"), whether it was purchased because of the notoriety of the author (again, "No") and whether Freeman thought the book was obscene (a qualified "No"). 

Definitions of key terms, in Freeman's handwriting, presumably in preparation for her court appearance.

St. John was also invited to read the infamous passage from page five before the group.  When St. John replied that he didn't think that targeting discrete paragraphs was a fair way to judge the totality of a book, Ernst continued to page six and asked St. John to read from that page instead.  St. John stood his ground, and Ernst indicated that he'd go through the entire book if he had to, page by page, with St. John refusing at every turn to read aloud in polite company.  St. John coolly replied that he'd be happy to read the whole book to the Grand Jury, noting that it had taken him a full 3 hours to read it himself the night before, and that reading out loud was generally slower going than reading to oneself.  I can't help but feel a certain pride by association with St. John's maneuver; a true librarian, he was, in effect, threatening to bore the Grand Jury into submission with a marathon reading of a plotless novel.  The Grand Jury also requested a list of patrons who had borrowed the book, ostensibly so that they could be brought into court to testify.  The library resisted, citing the confidentiality of patron records, and no subpeoena was issued.

After the July 1963 ruling, once the book was pulled from shelves, indignant patrons and staff alike wrote to support their right to read what they chose.  The library was in a difficult position -- the book selection policy and mission of the institution explicity stated "It is the function of the public library in America today to provide the means through which all people may have free access to the thinking on all sides of all ideas."  To excise a book from the collection because some found its ideas challenging was against the core principles of the institution and its staff.  On the other hand, as a publicly funded entity, the library could not openly defy the law of the land.  After an uneasy year, the Supreme Court ruled in June of 1964 that Miller's book could not constitutionally be banned, decisively closing the issue and upholding American's right to read what they chose. 

Among the many opinions offered on the alleged obscenity of Miller's book and the public's right to read it, my favorite comes from Margaret Freeman, who typed this eloquent (and unfortunately undated) memo at some point during the uproar. 

Today, patrons can check out Tropic of Cancer from Brooklyn Public Library in three different languages (English, Russian, and Polish).  They can download it as an ebook and surreptitiously enjoy its lascivious passages among morning commuters on the subway or romping children in their local park.  The truly bold can hear every f-bomb and s-word in an audiobook version, voiced by actor Campbell Scott.  If you go that route, I recommend doing so in mixed company.


This blog post reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Brooklyn Public Library.


Thanks for this extensive review of how a public library has to cope with bad-faith moral crusades. One does not have to wonder about the use of vague, emotionally loaded words such as [i]indecent[/i],[i] cesspool[/i], or [i]dirty[/i]. People still do that to bludgeon others into allowing big-mouths to justify themselves and self-interested decisions. Miller's book, and [i]Naked Lunch[/i], are lightening rods for moral indignation. That is what their writers wanted. The snarl words show the need to be authentic, which Miller, Burroughs, and all creative writers must be.
Thu, Oct 16 2014 2:40 pm Permalink

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