In the spirit of reciprocity we’re going to be giving you regular behind-the-scenes looks at how touch and go Barney Rosset’s battles for free expression were.

NUMBER ONE: How “Tropic of Cancer” Almost Didn’t Make It to Your Bookshelf! 

A bit of wild literary history from The Paris Review interview with Barney Rosset (Issue 145)

INTERVIEWER When you published Tropic of Cancer in 1961, the post office didn’t seize the book?

ROSSET No, they didn’t come after us, unfortunately. You can’t force them to. After Lady Chatterley, they never got involved in obscenity suits again. They learned their lesson, I think. But if the post office doesn’t arrest you, there are still many other possibilities for arrest. The local police can go into a store and say, Take this book off the shelves, and arrest the bookseller. In Brooklyn they came after me, the publisher, and charged me with conspiracy. They claimed that Henry Miller and I conspired to have him write Tropic of Cancer—that I commissioned him to write it in Brooklyn in 1933! That was a mistake, right? I would have been ten years old, and anyway he wrote the book in Paris. It was insane. I was brought before a grand jury. It was a big room. The jury looked like nice people. The district attorney got up and said, I understand that the children of these people on the grand jury are able to buy Tropic of Cancer at their local newsstand. I said, Well, that’s very good. And if their children bought that book and read it all the way through, then those parents should be congratulated! The district attorney just got laughed out of there by the grand jury. All the cops in America had settled on page seven or something as the page that made the book arrestable. It’s the page where the woman is shitting five-franc pieces out of her cunt, and there are wild chickens running around—the DA asked me to read it aloud. I did, and that’s when the jury really started laughing. And then he started laughing. And so they dropped it. The grand jury would not indict me. That was only one of hundreds of cases, all over the country, in every state—literally.

INTERVIEWER Did Henry Miller ever testify in any of those trials?

ROSSET No, he wouldn’t. He was afraid. He considered himself out of that business. He was not excited about the whole thing. It took years to convince him even to let us publish the Tropics. He wasn’t such a great crusader. He wrote me a letter in which he said: Now people come to Paris to buy the book, and they bring it back, and each book that gets into the United States is read by fifty people. What happens if you publish it and we actually win the case? In five years they’ll assign it in college courses and no one will want to read it! 

Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin
Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin on Tropic of Cancer: “I was very sorry that [Tropic of Cancer] was published first because I suppose many people pick that up and read it and never know the other Miller. The other Miller is the one I championed. I say, “Did you read The Collossos of Maroussi, and did you read the other books?” And they never have.”

Reader Tip: Check out this passionate letter from Henry to the eternally foxy Anaïs Nin on one of our favorite sites, Letters of Note.


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