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Avowedly smashing every possible convention, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is a strange book, and a difficult one to discuss.
Miller himself set the tone of the debates that have raged over it when he wrote in 1934: "This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character....No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Despite Time, Love, Beauty....what you will."
Yesterday, in the Suffolk County superior Court, men were still trying decide what Miller's novel is all about, and what words like "art," "purity," "religious," and "obscene" really mean.
That they determine in all this semantical exchange has more than academic interest, since Massachusetts Attorney General Edward J. McCormack is filing suit to have the book banned as obscene. Tropic is now under a temporary ban throughout the state.
McCormack's representative, Assistant Atty. Gen. Leo Sontag LL.B. '48, offered no witnesses, simply presented the book to Judge Lewis Goldberg '11, and rested the state's case. So yesterday's session consisted of examination and cross-examination of the defense's first witnesses, Harry T. Moore, an authority on D. H. Lawrence from the University of Southern Illinois, and Mark Schorer, critic, and professor of English at Berkeley.
Miller and his publishers, Grove Press, are represented by Attorney Ephraim London, a New York lawyer who makes a specialty of this sort of case. He is not about to play the prosecution's game of letting the case turn on the contents of the book alone.
The defense will introduce a battery of witnesses--from men of letters, who will try to establish the book's literary merit and show how conventions and proprieties in modern literature are shifting rapidly, to a psychologist, who may try to give the defense's version of the impact of Miller's erotic realism on readers, average or otherwise. They even plan to bring in an etymologist to discuss Miller's use of what everybody at the trial kept calling "four-letter words."
Moore described Tropic as the "adventures of an American in Paris," and compared Miller's anarchic individualism with that of Whitman, Emerson, or Thoreau. "Its seamier passages reflect the life of real people," he told Judge Goldberg: "If this book is obscene, then life is obscene."
Cross-examining Moore, Sontag stuck doggedly to the contents of the book. Moore was ready to admit that characters in tropic talk about nymphomania, masturbtaion, sexual relations with ani- mals, Lesbianism, homosexuality, and ridicule of conventional religion, but insisted that the novel is pure in intent and even religions in its sense of the sacredness of life.
(Here he was stopped by Judge Goldberg an old man tart towards lawyers, genial towards witnesses, and given to aphorisms like: "One should have an opinion without thinking about it." The Judge wanted to know did purity mean simply faithfulness of literary reproduction? Or did religion mean simply spontaneity? Discussion followed, but the questions are still very much unanswered, in this trial, at least.)
Mark Schorer testified next for the defense. Asked if the work has literary value, Schorer replied with an anecdote: not very long ago he was asked to be one member of a committee to award to European prize of $10,000 for contemporary writing. His thought was that Miller should get the prize, despite the fact that Tropic's author has been writing for several decades, for the reason that "Miller has never been adequately recognized." But the European critics on the committee rejected his suggestion, because to them "Miller has been a great figure for years," and required no further acclaim.
Schorer praised Tropic of Cancer for its energy, and its theme: "the value of life exists in the act of living." The book is a work of art written in the spirit of ant art, he said; the autobiographical "I" divests himself of all, in order to live, just as Miller the writer destroys literary convention in order to write.
Cross-examining, Sontag repeated the pattern of questions he used on the defense's first witness. He indicated scenes and topics in the book to which the Attorney General objects and Schorer agreed that they were indeed present. He felt, though, that they were a necessary and integral part of Miller's style and art
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