Miller’s sprawling masterpiece was launched by the Obelisk Press, a French publisher of soft pornography as Tropic of Cancer, with a cover by Maurice Girodias, who would later become famous as the leading French publisher of erotic literature. Wrapped in an explicit warning (“Not to be imported into Great Britain or USA”), it set a new gold standard for graphic language and explicit sexuality. From the outset, Miller’s “barbaric yawp” shook US censorship and inflamed American literary sensibility to its core. Tropic would remain banned for a generation, by which time it had become part of postwar cultural folklore, smuggled into the US wrapped in scarves and underwear. Rarely has a book had such thrilling and desperate underground beginnings.
The outsider status of Miller’s novel combined with its subject (life and love at the extremes of existence) recommended the book to writers like Orwell and Beckett. In his essay Inside the Whale (1940), Orwell wrote: “I earnestly counsel anyone who has not done so to read at least Tropic of Cancer. With a little ingenuity, or by paying a little over the published price, you can get hold of it, and even if parts of it disgust you, it will stick in your memory … Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past.”
For his part Samuel Beckett described it as “a momentous event in the history of modern writing”. In the US, as an outright challenge to the censor, Edmund Wilson noted that “The tone of the book is undoubtedly low. Tropic of Cancer… is the lowest book of any real literary merit that I ever remember to have read.”
Miller’s vision prevailed, in the end. Finally, in 1961, the year after Lady Chatterley’s Lover secured the right to be published in the UK, Tropic of Cancer triumphed in its battle with the US censor and was published by the Grove Press. The timing of this landmark verdict did not favour the ageing iconoclast. At first, his book was treated as the fruit of Miller’s complex relationship with Anaïs Nin, who was an object of veneration within the American feminist movement. Later, feminists like Kate Millett denounced Miller as a male chauvinist, while Jeanette Winterson asked, perceptively: “Why do men revel in the degradation of women?” This question still hangs over the pages of Tropic like a rebuke, but (with a few misgivings) I’m still going to add it to this series.