One of my First Amendment heroes, Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset, received a lifetime achievement award today from the National Book Foundation. Rosset published the first American edition of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and he fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to do so. He tells the story to Brooke Gladstone at On the Media. Listen and you’ll get the added bonus of hearing Henry read a snippet of the Parisian ex-pat classic:
This, then, this is not a book. 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.
Rosset notes that Miller was indifferent to censorship, but Samuel Beckett objected to it fervently. His Waiting for Godot had been banned in the U.K. in the 1950s for its use of the word “erection”:
VLADIMIR: Well, what do we do now?
VLADIMIR: Yes, but while waiting.
ESTRAGON: How about hangin’ ourselves?
VLADIMIR: Mm, it might give us an erection.
ESTRAGON: An erection?
VLADIMIR: With all that follows. Where it falls, mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!
One more factoid, then you can read the complete OTM transcript. Cops across America were instructed to read only one page of Tropic of Cancer (it happened to be page five) for proof of smut. Then they would arrest the booksellers. So the next time you find a tattered copy in a used bookstore, guewss what page will be dog-eared?