In September 1934 the American writer Henry Miller, age 42, had published in Paris his autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer. In that same month, 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in Washington, D.C., the Secretary of the Treasury appointed a young Baltimore lawyer as the official U.S. Censor. One of the new censor’s first acts was to place Tropic of Cancer on the list of books prohibited from importation into the United States. Thus began one of the most extraordinary and long relationships in American literary history.
Miller had been writing novels since 1922, but his first three efforts, written primarily while he was living in Brooklyn and New York, had not been accepted for publication, and he regarded them as failures. In 1930, at the urging of his second wife June Mansfield, Miller moved to Paris in a desperate bid to find himself as a writer. Miller lived a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Paris, consorting with prostitutes and other expatriate artists he met in cafés, and surviving on their generosity. In 1931, he began transforming these experiences into what he called his “Paris book,” a mélange of anecdotes, reflections, character sketches, scabrous outbursts and surreal flights of language held together by the distinctive voice of its first-person narrator, a fictionalized version of the man named Henry Miller.
The book was published by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press. Anticipating that Tropic of Cancer would be banned by censors, Kahane wrapped the book in a white band on which was printed in large black letters MUST NOT BE TAKEN INTO GREAT BRITAIN OR U.S.A. Even in Paris, the book was offered for sale by subscription only, and copies were hard to find in Paris bookstores, where they were kept hidden under the counter. The first edition was a run of 1,000 copies.
Miller was eager to get copies of the book to readers in America, especially his friends, fellow writers, and literary critics. He gave several copies to his good friend Hilaire Hiler, an American painter about to return to New York to open a studio. Hiler passed though American customs without incident, and distributed copies of the book to an assortment of readers, including his father Meyer. Meyer immediately read the book, and then wrote Miller a letter expressing his admiration. In gratitude, Miller sent Meyer an inscribed copy via the German vessel Deutschland. This copy was seized by a Customs Inspector in New York and sent to the Office of the General Counsel of the Treasury Department for review. The General Counsel found the book obscene and ordered the Customs Bureau to destroy it.
The government’s authority to confiscate and destroy books derived from The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. This Act, among its other provisions, prohibited the importation into the United States of books, pamphlets, paintings, drawings or images deemed to be obscene, and authorized their forfeiture and destruction. The Act also gave the Secretary of the Treasury discretionary authority to “admit the so-called classics or books of recognized and established literary merit . . . when imported for non-commercial purposes.” The Act did not define obscenity, nor did it clarify what constitutes “recognized and established literary or scientific merit.”
The man who believed that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was obscene, by the legal standards of his time, was Huntington Cairns, a 30-year-old attorney whose day job was partner in a prominent Baltimore law firm. His government duties were to assist in the enforcement of the Tariff Act through consultation with officials in the Treasury Department, the Customs Bureau, and field officers. The part-time position was unsalaried, although Cairns was paid a per diem of $22.22 when consulted on a book.
His appointment followed an embarrassing federal court reversal of the Treasury Department’s decision to ban James Joyce’s Ulysses, a decision challenged by Joyce’s American publisher, Random House. The court’s opinion, rendered by Judge Augustus Hand, stated that a book could not be banned simply because it contained passages deemed by Customs Bureau officials to be obscene. Rather, the overall effect of the book on the reader would have to be gauged. Thus, although a work, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, contains passages that some readers might consider obscene, if the author’s intent is clearly artistic, and the overall effect of the book, “in the estimation of approved critics,” is literary rather than pornographic, the work should not be censored.
Such was the prevailing legal standard for obscenity when the copy of Cancer that Miller had sent to Meyer Hiler reached Cairns’ desk in Washington. Nevertheless, after Cairns read Miller’s novel, he recommended that it be placed on the list of books prohibited from importation under the Tariff Act. As a result, Miller’s first published novel was banned from reaching the primary audience for whom it had been written, his countrymen. Ironically, the man who banned it subsequently became one of Miller’s most fervent advocates.
Huntington Cairns was a brilliant young lawyer with wide-ranging interests in jurisprudence, philosophy, literature, and science. Those who knew him considered him a Renaissance man with a strong belief in the power of reason to advance human civilization. He counted among his friends many of the leading literary figures of his time, including his fellow Baltimorean H.L. Mencken.
It’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar men than Cairns and Miller. Even physically, they were a mixed pair. Cairns was six feet tall, with brown hair and blue eyes, and he weighed close to 200 pounds. Miller stood five feet eight, weighed 135 pounds, and was bald. Photos of Cairns from the 1930s show a confident, affable professional, correctly dressed in a three piece suit and conservative striped tie, ready for work at the offices of his law firm Piper, Carey, and Hall or a meeting with the General Counsel of the Treasury Department, if not the Secretary himself. Miller, when wearing a suit, had a rumpled look, as though dressed in a borrowed outfit or clothes purchased second-hand. More often, he is seen in workman’s clothes – rough pants, open-collared shirt, and plain shoes – or, as in a photo taken of him and Lawrence Durrell on the beach in Corfu, no clothes at all.
In almost every aspect of their lives, Miller and Cairns present a study in contrasts. Miller was the second generation from a German immigrant family, the son of a tailor with a poor business sense and a fondness for drink, and a harsh, humorless mother who henpecked her husband and ridiculed Henry’s ambition to be a writer. Growing up in Brooklyn, he led an aimless existence, moving from job to menial job, place to place, and relationship to relationship without apparent purpose, always restless, always dissatisfied. When he wrote Tropic of Cancer in Paris, he was unemployed, penniless, surviving on his wits and the kindness of friends while he threw himself into the task of becoming a writer.
While Miller had rejected American civilization in the quest to find himself, Cairns had positioned himself at the very center of American cultural life as a lawyer, man of letters, and government official. He was the son of a successful Scotch immigrant businessman. He went from high school to law school to comfortable professional appointments, following the path of success promised by the American dream. He had married Florence Butler at the age of twenty-six and remained her husband until his death. He held memberships in prestigious social clubs and professional organizations. If Miller was the consummate outsider, a man who could not say “yes” to the American way of life, Cairns was the consummate insider, a man who not only played by the rules of the game but also made them.
All of these circumstantial and social differences between the two men were grounded in radically different ways of approaching and understanding man’s nature. Cairns was a rationalist who believed in the power of intellect to shape civilization and move it forward. Miller was a mystic who believed the driving forces in human nature are instinct, emotion, and intuition, and that man’s reliance on reason had led him away from himself. Another way of saying this is that Cairns was Apollonian, while Miller was Dionysian. A colleague of Cairns wrote of him, “He believes the single most important book ever written to be Euclid’s Geometry, since it taught men to think rationally. Rational thought, as he pointed out, is the foundation of all logic, without which every form of civilized life would be unthinkable.”
For Miller, the “unthinkable” was the way to man’s salvation. He believed that reason had divorced man from his animal self and thus disconnected him from the vital life force that governs the universe. For him, nature was not following a controlling Idea, it was obeying inscrutable cosmic rhythms and impulses that also operate in man.
Cairns was well aware of the Apollonian-Dionysian split, and had written about it in his essay “Law and Its Premises.” For him, the Dionysian impulse moved man towards anarchy, a state that Miller approved because it reflected his own inner life. After Miller returned to America in 1940, he and Cairns had a friendly exchange over this radical difference in their philosophical outlooks. Cairns had launched a radio program called “Invitation to Learning” that was broadcast from the CBS studio in New York. He invited Miller to participate in the program, which featured discussion of the classics of world literature by prominent intellectuals such as Allen Tate and Mark Van Doren. In his invitation, Cairns mentioned Plato’s Phaedo and Aristotle’s Poetics as upcoming topics. Miller, who had been listening to the program and enjoying it, was hesitant to accept, partly because he had microphone fright, partly because he was put off by the topic. His letter to Cairns shows how divergent were his intellectual interests and influencers from Cairns’:
Wish I could make up my mind to participate on the air with you – it certainly would be unique – “I and the Censor,” – eh? I don’t know yet. Beside, most of the things you discuss I’ve never read. You certainly favor Plato, I notice. Christ! Is he that important? What about Plotinus and Hermes Trismegistus? What about Abélard or the great alchemist Paracelsus? What about Blavatsky’s “Secret Doctrine” or the “Baghavad Gita,” the very greatest classic of all? Why not Pythagoras, the one great shining fount of Greek wisdom – rather than that old stick-in-the-mud Aristotle?
This fundamental difference in their world outlook underscores why Miller the artist and Cairns the censor could never be fully reconciled. For Miller saw art as a means to personal transformation – the alchemical miracle. Any restriction on the artist’s freedom of expression threatened this outcome. For Cairns, the claims of society, where civilization resided, to regulate and control individual behavior, took precedence. Miller recognized that this was the reality facing the artist, the cause of his suffering, and he railed against it all of his life.
Cairns’ philosophical outlook, his belief in reason and in the claims of society, shaped his attitudes towards censorship and obscenity and certainly influenced his decision to recommend that Tropic of Cancer be banned. Cairns held strong but pragmatic views on the censoring of obscenity in literature that guided his recommendations to the Treasury Department and the Customs Bureau. He believed that obscenity has been a permanent feature of human experience, found in both primitive and modern societies, and that the use of obscenity has always been regulated by strong taboos. It is this aspect of obscenity – that it is customarily hidden from view – that Cairns placed at the heart of the modern legal question. “Obscenity is not customarily brought into public view,” Cairns wrote. “Should that custom be reinforced by legal sanction, and, if so, within what limits?”
Though a champion of artistic freedom, Cairns accepted that societies have always placed limits on it, and would continue to do so. His goal was to make censorship as enlightened as possible. The key to his role as advisor to the Treasury Department was his recommendations on the use of the Secretary’s discretionary power. The wise use of this power offered artists a protection against whimsical and ill-informed censorship. Cairns sought to define how books being reviewed by the Treasury could pass the smell test of “recognized and established literary merit.” Cairns took this to mean “books which have behind them a substantial and reputable body of American critical opinion indicating that the works are of meritorious quality. Opinions of foreign critics, while persuasive, do not receive quite the same weight. It is not necessary that the American critical opinion be unanimous.”
In formulating this criterion for merit, Cairns was acknowledging that public opinion would play an important role in an evolving standard of what constitutes obscenity, as decided in the courts. He was seeking to protect the Treasury from embarrassing reversals, as had happened in the Ulysses case, while at the same time opening the gates of America to serious works of art that give frank treatment of sexual themes.
When Cairns read the copy of Tropic of Cancer that Miller had sent to Meyer Hiler, he probably realized that he was reading a serious work of literature, not pornography. But in recommending that the book be prohibited, he was following not the dictates of his own taste, but his sense of what American public opinion and the American legal system would tolerate. He took into account that Miller was not a known author, as James Joyce was, and that most if not all American judges would find the book obscene under the prevailing standards of obscenity. For as Jack Kahane had observed after his reading of Cancer: “It makes Joyce’s Ulysses taste like lemonade.”
Cairns’ reasoning is revealed in a letter he wrote to Herman Oliphant, the General Counsel of the Treasury Department, regarding the decision to admit Céline’s Mort à Crédit while excluding Miller’s Tropic. In explaining the distinction, Cairns reverted to his formula for merit. He pointed out that “Céline was, even before the publication of this work, an established author with an excellent reputation in France, England and America. Miller, on the other hand, is known only to the public interested in esoteric literature.” With regard to the work itself, Cairns noted that out of a total of 700 pages, not more than 15 pages are “questionable.” “Also, these passages are not nearly as outspoken as many of the passages in Tropic of Cancer. I felt that the Bureau could, with complete justification, admit the volume freely under the Ulysses ruling, that is, if you read the book as a whole, it is clearly not obscene. I do not think this test would permit the admission of the Tropic of Cancer.”
What was it about Tropic of Cancer that led Cairns to believe that general readers of the book would find its overall effect to be obscene?
Tropic of Cancer was, in many respects, a revolutionary work of literature when it was published in 1934. Its intent was to create a change in men’s thinking about themselves and their relationship to society. Picaresque in style, episodic in structure, moving freely and illogically between anecdotes, characterizations, metaphysical speculations and surreal linguistic improvisations, Miller’s book disregards all the conventions of the traditional novel. Centered on a clowning, amoral narrator gleefully insulting his readers’ sensibilities and expectations, the novel’s “formless” form gave Miller complete license to challenge the prevailing taboos of western civilization that, in his view, enslaved man and kept him from realizing his true nature.
Though sexual taboos were, for Miller, at the root of modern man’s alienation from himself, his assault spans the full range of human social behaviors. Personal hygiene, eating habits, modes of speaking, the ethics of friendship and everyday social relations – everything, in short, that a rational society holds sacred – are all upended through grotesque exaggeration, caricature, and the anarchic behavior of the novel’s “hero.” Behind the scabrous outbursts one hears the cosmic laughter of a narrator who has leaped into the void and invites us to follow him. Although the passages in Tropic of Cancer most likely to inflame the censor treat male and female genitalia and their role in sexual acts, Miller spares no human activity – except art – from his mockery and disrespect. And it is perhaps this full frontal attack on all aspects of conventional human behavior, as much as the graphic accounts of the narrator’s sexual exploits, that caused Huntington Cairns to believe that many readers would find the overall effect of the book to be obscene.
From the outset, Miller declares that it is his intention to offend his readers’ sense of decorum, to discredit everything that they value: “This is not a book,” he announces. “This is libel, slander, defamation of character. 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.” A few pages later, Miller restates his purpose as “the recording of all that which is omitted in books.” Miller is going to turn over the rock of civilization and expose the maggots feeding beneath it.
He quickly makes good on his word as he introduces us to “Tania,” the wife of another expatriate writer, with whom the narrator is carrying on an affair. Miller makes clear that Tania is much more than a sexual partner. She is Woman, the vessel who embodies the mystery of life, the Holy Grail. Miller’s intent is not to worship her, but to defile her.
“When into the womb of time everything is again withdrawn chaos will be restored and chaos is the score upon which reality is written. You, Tania, are my chaos. It is why I sing.” Then, a mock apotheosis:
O Tania, where is now 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 remnant 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 navel. 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 . . .
It is not hard to imagine Huntington Cairns taking out his red pencil after reading this passage. It is not pornographic – it is too grotesque to excite lustful thoughts – but it is obscene, deliberately so, as Miller foretold. But does it make the book obscene?
Passages in this vein rarely occur in Tropic of Cancer, and when they do, they always carry symbolic import. More prevalent are continuous references to a woman’s genitalia as “cunt” or “twat” or “pussy” or “hairy crack.” A man’s sexual organ is usually either a “cock” or a “prick” or “an erection,” and sometimes simply a penis. There are also descriptions of people defecating, menstruating, showing symptoms of venereal disease, displaying unhealthy personal hygiene, and living in sordid surroundings. These descriptions are usually delivered in a jaunty, approving tone that conveys the narrator’s anarchic attitude. As the title of his book suggests, Miller is creating a portrait of a diseased world. “The world is a cancer eating itself away,” he tells us matter-of-factly. And this vision of the world as diseased permeates the novel, creating the antagonist, which the hero – Miller – overcomes through a combination of acceptance, detachment, and humor. Here is Miller out for a Sunday stroll in Paris:
At the Cité Nortier, somewhere near the Place du Combat, I pause a few minutes to drink in the full squalor of the scene. It is a rectangular court like many another which one glimpses through the low passageways that flank the old arteries of Paris. In the middle of the court is a clump of decrepit buildings which have so rotted away that they have collapsed on one another and formed a sort of intestinal embrace. The ground is uneven, the flagging slippery with slime. A sort of human dump heap which has been filled in with cinders and dry garbage. The sun is setting fast. The colors die. They shift from purple to dried blood, from nacre to bister, from cool dead grays to pigeon shit. Here and there a lopsided monster stands in the window blinking like an owl. There is the shrill squawk of children with pale faces and bony limbs, rickety little urchins marked with the forceps. A fetid odor seeps from the walls, the odor of a mildewed mattress. Europe – medieval, grotesque, monstrous: a symphony in B-mol. Directly across the street the Ciné Combat offers its distinguished clientele Metropolis.
Further on in the novel, Miller sums up this bleak vision of modern life. “No matter where you go, no matter what you touch, there is cancer and syphilis. It is written in the sky; it flames and dances, like an evil portent. It has eaten into our souls and we are nothing but a dead thing like the moon.”
To convey his conviction that modern man lives in an obscene world, Miller resorts to the obscene vocabulary of human sexuality. His intention is anything but erotic. He shocks the reader with violent sexual imagery that expresses his horror at western civilization. “Paris,” he tells us, that symbol of high culture and sophistication, “is like a whore.” Further on in the novel, he elaborates the simile.
When I look down into this fucked-out cunt of a whore I feel the whole world beneath me, a world tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper’s skull. If anyone knew what it meant to read the riddle of that thing which is today called a “crack” or a “hole,” if any one had the least feeling of mystery about the phenomena which are labeled “obscene,” this world would crack asunder. It is the obscene horror, the dry, fucked-out aspect of things which makes this crazy civilization look like a crater.
Although Miller here makes it clear that he is using obscenity as a literary device, that in his hands it is an instrument of social commentary, Cairns would not let it pass. Perhaps he was personally offended by Miller’s attacks on the values that he championed and lived by. Perhaps he wanted to protect the Treasury Department, and himself, from the uproar that would follow if the book entered the American literary mainstream. He never revealed his hand, unless it was in private conversations for which there are no records. Cairns’ judgment of what U.S. courts would consider obscene was sound. Over the 30-year period that he served as special legal advisor to the Customs Bureau, not one of his findings was reversed by a court.
Cairns’ decision led to a 25-year correspondence and friendship with the author he had censored. During their long relationship Cairns advised Miller privately how he might overcome the censorship ban while publicly, in his official capacity as censor, he kept Tropic of Cancer on the list of books prohibited from importation into the U.S. and added to this list several other Miller titles, including Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn, and The Rosy Crucifixion.
Although Cairns had recommended that Tropic of Cancer be banned, the decision troubled him, as is clear from his correspondence. He was looking for a way to help Miller get the ban lifted. In January 1936 Cairns sent to Herman Oliphant, General Counsel of the Treasury Department, a quote from the English critic Cyril Connolly, who had mentioned Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in an article published in The Nation a few months after the novel was issued. Connolly had called the book “a gay, fierce, shocking, profound, sometimes brilliant, sometimes madly irritating first novel, by Henry Miller, the American Céline.” In sending this quote to Oliphant, Cairns was obviously trying to plant the seed of “recognized and established literary merit” that the Secretary could refer to when exercising his discretionary power. This encomium from a prominent European critic set a pattern that was to persist for many years and make it difficult for Cairns to remove Miller’s books from the list of prohibited works. From the outset, Miller was highly regarded as a literary artist by European critics, including such well-known figures as T.S. Eliot, but the opinions of Europeans did not reflect American public opinion and therefore could not be given much weight by Cairns under his own formula.
In May 1936 Cairns received a letter from Miller. Miller had been corresponding with H.L. Mencken, to whom he had sent (probably via Hiler) a copy of Cancer that had eluded the Customs Bureau, and Mencken told him of Cairns’ “interest and bewilderment” in the book. Miller assured Cairns, “I appreciate your position and the attitude you have taken.” He offered to send Cairns a copy of his second book, Black Spring, which Obelisk had recently issued. Cairns, no doubt concerned lest Miller try to mail another obscene book directly to him, the censor, wrote back to tell Miller that he would be in Paris in August and would pick up a copy of the book while there. The two men met, and during Cairns’ visit he explained to Miller “the problem of Tropic of Cancer.” After Cairns’ departure, Miller sent him a copy of a favorable review of Cancer that had appeared in Eliot’s periodical Criterion in England. Cairns wrote back that he had read Black Spring on the return voyage. “It filled me with admiration. I know of no other writer in English who is more naturally a novelist or who writes with anything approaching your power.” Nevertheless, when Customs intercepted a copy of Black Spring, it too was placed on the prohibited list.
Cairns’ reasoning pointed to a catch-22 facing Miller. Tropic of Cancer could not be admitted because Miller, unlike Céline or Joyce, had no reputation in America. But if his books could not be admitted, offered to the general reading public, and reviewed by respected critics in mainstream publications, how was he to establish a reputation?
Cairns was trying to help Miller obtain American recognition, and continued to send him words of encouragement. In February 1937 he wrote, “I am trying to interest American critics in your work, with the object in view of having them write some full-length studies.” He mentioned V.F. Calverton, a personal friend and well-known scholar who had expressed interest in writing a thorough study of Miller’s work. Cairns lavished praise on Miller’s literary abilities. “None of the other American émigrés to Paris since the war come anywhere near you in capacity and performance and I hope nothing will arise to prevent a completion of the program you have set for yourself.” Cairns was comparing Miller favorably with Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald – heady company for a writer whose books could not be obtained in America. To express his appreciation for Cairns’ efforts, Miller sent him a watercolor he had painted. He told Cairns he should “look at it in the dark over a good shaded electric light. I hope it pleases you.”
At this time Cairns was preparing to write his essay “Freedom of Expression in Literature” for The American Academy of Political and Social Science. In a sign of his concern over the impact on Miller of the Customs’ ban on his books, Cairns asked Miller if he could provide “a short statement of about 100 or 200 words, setting forth exactly how you view the probable effect on your writings of the present suppression of your books in America and England.” He told Miller that he had not been able to find any instances in which government suppression of a book has resulted in any damage to the writer. “In all the cases I can think of the author continues serenely on his course as if nothing happened.”
Miller made haste to reply. He enclosed the statement Cairns had requested, but his cover letter did not mince words. “The question is basically stupid, if you will permit me to say so frankly. It is like inquiring about the effect of storms or droughts on trees. . . But one thing must be obvious even to pedantic jackasses who frame such questionnaires, and that is that the expansion and the efflorescence of the human personality does not come about through restrictive measures.” Miller remarked that “the motive underlying all taboos is fear. The censorship of art is, in my opinion, a civilized, neurotic expression of the primitive man’s fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar. It exists everywhere in the civilized world, even in France. There is no solution that I can see.” On the inevitability of censorship, in spite of its irrationality, Miller and Cairns were in agreement. After Miller read the copy of Cairns’ essay that Cairns sent him after its publication, he wrote to him, “I concur with you absolutely.”
Miller was philosophical about the censorship of his work because he believed that in the end it would prove self-defeating. “Unwittingly the American censorship is making a celebrity of me, almost insuring the fact that my books will be read a hundred years hence,” he told Cairns.
In March 1938 Edmund Wilson, one of America’s foremost literary critics, wrote a review of Tropic of Cancer that was published in the New Republic. The review, while remarking the sordid qualities of the book, was laudatory, and clearly positioned Miller as a writer to be taken seriously. Miller, Wilson wrote, “has produced the most remarkable book which, as far as my reading goes, has come from it [the Left Bank] in many years. Tropic of Cancer is a good piece of writing; and it has also a sort of historical importance. It is the epitaph for the whole generation of American writers and artists that migrated to Paris after the war.”
Cairns read the review, and excitedly sent a copy of it off to Miller in Paris. This was exactly the sort of recognition that, in Cairns view, was needed if Miller’s books were to be admitted through the Secretary’s discretionary power. “Wilson’s review ought to be a large influence on your fortunes over here,” Cairns commented. “My only regret is that he did not do a longer piece, discussing at length all your published works. He is a close friend of Calverton’s and perhaps Calverton had a finger in it.”
But Miller was offended by Wilson’s review, and replied to Cairns with a blistering letter to the editor of the New Republic that he asked Cairns to forward for him, since he did not have the publication’s address. He called Wilson’s review “one of the worst (from every standpoint) I ever received, and coming from one of America’s greatest critics it is disgraceful. He must be in his dotage, Wilson.” Miller sneeringly attacked Wilson for being “a gentleman of letters” and suggested that he failed to understand the book. Miller’s response to Wilson’s review exposed his deep-seated hostility to American culture, a hostility that America returned by excluding him.
In the following year, more reviews of Miller’s work by American critics began to appear in American publications. Obelisk Press had issued Tropic of Capricorn in 1939, and Paul Rosenfeld reviewed it glowingly in The Nation. He placed the book in “the tradition of originality,” likening Miller to D.H. Lawrence and Hart Crane. He called Miller’s prose “at its most characteristic elevated in pitch, lyrical, dithyrambic. The sometimes brutal style is prevalently high-colored; spare, but in many instances precious and magnificent.” He found “the vital rhythm the essence of the literature,” the key word here being “literature.” Unfortunately, in the same review, Rosenfeld brought up Tropic of Cancer, which he considered “often obscene to the verge of pornography,” a phrase that would be echoed in many future court cases involving the book.
Nineteen-thirty-nine was also the year of the first publication in the United States of a book written by Miller. James Laughlin’s New Directions issued The Cosmological Eye, a collection of short pieces by Miller that Obelisk had earlier published under the title Max and the White Phagocytes. Laughlin also contemplated publishing Tropic of Cancer in America, but abandoned the idea from fear that it might cause his family to withdraw its financial support of New Directions.
The Cosmological Eye was widely reviewed in the United States by critics from major metropolitan newspapers. Some reviews were favorable, others unfavorable, and many mentioned Miller’s banned books in passing. His name was now before the American reading public, and his writing was being treated as serious literature. But Cairns remained circumspect about Miller’s standing in American eyes. He wrote to him in November, “The American reviewers are apparently completely baffled by your writings. This is something I assume you have anticipated. I have no doubt of the outcome in the future, but it seems to me that it will be a long pull.” To illustrate his point, he enclosed a brief review of The Cosmological Eye by Clifton Fadiman that had appeared in The New Yorker. Fadiman recommended Miller to “those who have an affection for vanguard writers and are not afraid of a little sewerage.”
As war loomed again in Europe, Miller made plans to leave France. His intention was to visit Lawrence Durrell in Greece, then travel further east towards Tibet, an environment more hospitable to his evolving mystical outlook. Before he left Paris he wrote Cairns a five page, single-spaced typed letter in which he summarized all that he had accomplished as a writer, and provided Cairns with a biographical sketch of his life before Paris. He closed this letter with the touching remark, “Permit me to add that I value most highly all the efforts you have made on my behalf, that I consider you, along with Emil Schnellock, my two American friends.” Then he lamented, pointedly, “What gripes me more than anything is that in fifteen years of the highest consecration to the task I am still unable to earn my living as a writer. I am not thinking about America as a refuge – it never was and never will be for me – but only as a halting place on the journey.”
The fact that Miller considered Cairns, a man he had met only once, one of only two American friends, the other being his boyhood chum from Brooklyn Emil Schnellock, is quite astonishing.
Miller returned to the United States at the end of 1939 after being repatriated by the U.S. Consulate in Athens during his stay with Lawrence Durrell. After drifting for several years, he settled in Big Sur, California in 1944, started a family, bought property, and remained there until 1961. During this entire period, he sustained his relationship with Huntington Cairns. The two men met occasionally on Miller’s trips east and when Cairns came to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In addition to cultivating him as censor, Miller relied on Cairns for a number of services. He used Cairns’ office in Washington as a storage point for personal documents and reviews, and occasionally received secretarial help in typing manuscripts. He often turned to Cairns for legal advice, especially when he was attempting to retrieve from France $40,000 in royalties on the titles published by Obelisk. He asked Cairns to help him find a patron who would subsidize him while he wrote The Rosy Crucifixion. Cairns identified a prospect who then had the misfortune to fall seriously ill.
Cairns unhesitatingly and cheerfully tried to accommodate Miller’s numerous requests for help. But Miller’s primary motive in sustaining his friendship with Cairns was his desire to have the American ban on his books lifted. In responding to this need of Miller’s Cairns was more circumspect, always mindful that his primary loyalty lay to the Treasury Department and the laws of the land, not to the artist Henry Miller whose work he admired. Whenever Miller tried to elicit from Cairns a formal declaration of the “literary merit” of his work, Cairns would demur, citing his role as censor.
By 1945, as Miller settled into his extended residence in Big Sur, his prolific output had made him a writer well-known in America’s literary circles, if not to the general reader. Following the publication of The Cosmological Eye in 1939, New Directions had brought out The Wisdom of the Heart in 1941, Sunday After the War in 1944, and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare in 1945. Additionally, The Colt Press in San Francisco had in 1941 published The Colossus of Maroussi, Miller’s book about his travels in Greece. Miller had also completed a draft of the first volume of The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy,
Miller thereupon took matters into his own hands and wrote the essay “Obscenity and the Law of Reflection” for publication in the periodical Tricolor. In the essay, Miller took dead aim at the entire censorship apparatus in the United States, suggesting not so subtly that the standard Cairns was using to admit or exclude books was meaningless because obscenity cannot and should not be censored.
Obscenity, according to Miller, exists not in the work, but in the mind of the beholder. The artist who uses in a work of art what is regarded by convention as obscene does so in order to bring to the surface what society tries to suppress. The artist is motivated by the desire to explore and understand the mysteries of life, including the aspects of life that men wish to conceal. Arguing thus, Miller was standing on its head Cairns’ definition of obscenity as “sexual stimulants not customarily brought into public view.”
When obscenity crops out in art, in literature more particularly, it usually functions as a technical device; the element of the deliberate which is there has nothing to do with sexual excitation, as in pornography. If there is an ulterior motive at work it is one which goes far beyond sex. Its purpose is to awaken, to usher in a sense of reality. In a sense, its use by the artist may be compared to the use of the miraculous by the Masters. . . Once this vantage point is reached, how trifling and remote seem the accusations of the moralists! How senseless the debate as to whether the work in question was of high literary merit or not!
Miller followed up this jab with a letter to Cairns asking “about the current attitude of the censor. . . For several years now I have been watching the reviews pile up – the serious ones – but I’ve never heard from you, as censor, that my status has changed. . . I wonder what must happen next to set things in motion? Some day I ought to be allowed to earn royalties on my own books, don’t you think?”
Cairns dodged the question in his reply, obviously loath to put in writing his view of the matter. “The censorship business is a complicated matter, too full of ramifications for me to set out in a letter. I wish now that we had discussed it when you were here.” (Miller had visited Cairns in Washington during a trip east in the fall of 1944.) What Cairns undoubtedly had in mind was the attitude of the courts. Were he to remove the book from the prohibited list, a court challenge was likely to ensue. Cairns doubted that many jurists in America would read Tropic of Cancer and conclude that it was not obscene. Such an adverse ruling would not only embarrass the Treasury Department, it would also harm the book by creating a legal precedent. As he had written to Oliphant, a court had admitted Ulysses, but was unlikely to be as liberal with Miller’s books. In part this may have been because in addition to their obscene passages, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn contained numerous assaults on the American way of life, whereas the setting of Joyce’s book is Dublin.
In 1950, a court case in San Francisco showed that Cairns’ caution was wise. Ernest Besig, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, arranged for Stanford Professor J. Murray Luck to bring back from Paris copies of the two Tropics. The books were seized by Customs, and the U.S. Attorney filed a libel claim against the books demanding their destruction. At the trial Judge Goodman disregarded expert testimony from critics as irrelevant. Declaring that both books are “replete with long passages that are filthy and revolting and that tend to excite lustful thoughts and desires,” Goodman found the books obscene and ordered their destruction.
Clearly, the sensibilities of Judge Goodman were deeply offended by the two books. In justifying his opinion, Goodman wrote, “The many obscene passages in the books have such an evil stench that to include them here in footnotes would make this opinion pornographic. For example, there are several passages where the female sexual organs are referred to in such detailed vulgar language as to create nausea in the reader. If this be important literature, then the dignity of the human person and the stability of the family unit, which are the cornerstone of our system of society, are lost to us.” This opinion shows that, 16 years after its publication, Miller’s novel was still having its intended effect to shock readers.
Cairns never lifted the ban on Tropic of Cancer. That task fell to the United States Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 ruling on June 22, 1964 declared the book not obscene. In 1961, Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, had persuaded Miller, then seventy years old and leery of court battles and media publicity, to allow him to issue Tropic of Cancer in the United States. The release of the book provoked a flurry of prosecutions in state and federal courts across the country, and propelled Tropic of Cancer onto the best-seller list. Before he published the book, Rosset wrote Cairns a short letter asking for his opinion of Cancer’s prospects in court. He quoted Miller: “Write my friend Huntington Cairns. . . Just ask him what his opinion of the chances are for winning case if Cancer goes to courts. A private statement, stress this. Not official. Say Henry asked for it.” Cairns, as usual declined to offer an opinion. He wrote back to Rosset, “I would like to oblige Henry, but I feel that in view of my official connection with the government I should not venture an opinion.”
Henry Miller died on June 7, 1980 in Pacific Palisades, California. Huntington Cairns died on January 21, 1985 in Nags Head, North Carolina. A continent separated them. Their correspondence ended in 1960. Three days after Miller’s death, Cairns, retired as censor, told a reporter, “Miller’s life and work are proof that serious art should never be censored.”