Still Scandalous: ‘Tropic of Cancer’ 50 Years Later

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the US publication of Henry Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer. He lays out his objective on the very first page: “This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will.” The novel was banned in the US for 27 years, although you could snag a copy in Paris from 1934 onward. The ban was eventually overturned because, like fellow banned books Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the court ruled the novel was literature, not pornography. The result was that the Brooklyn-raised Miller was nearly 70 years old when his first novel was finally published in his home country.

Why was the book banned in the first place, and why was the ban ultimately overturned? Read 10 of the novel’s most scandalous (and for the most part, incredibly NSFW) passages after the jump.

Anais Nin observed that Miller “has an eagerness to catch everything without make-up, without embellishment, women before they comb their hair, writers before they don artificial smiles with their artificial bow ties.” Along these lines, the first graphic passage in Tropic of Cancer is not titillating – it’s grimy and crude. Ultimately the boasting becomes too ridiculous to be pornography. Additionally, he’s not describing action, he’s describing thought and desire, much like the nameless starving writer protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s 1890 Norwegian novel Hunger, a major influence.

Miller with Anais Nin in 1974

“O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your naval. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’ chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces. . . . “