Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Moral Public Enemy No. 1

"So far as American standards are concerned, I would regard Henry Miller as Moral Public Enemy No. 1, doing more damage to the ethic foundations of our Republic than any criminal whose picture appears in the lobby of post offices under the heading: 'Wanted by the Police.' These criminals have warred on society but Henry Miller’s works, with those of his brother pornographic writers, unless curbed by the law, may eventually undermine the moral foundations of our nation because they are aimed at the youths of today who eventually will be the citizens of tomorrow."
--- Justice Michael Musmanno, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Robin (1966)

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge named Michael Musmanno (1897-1968) was not very pleased when, in 1964, the Supreme Court of the United States deemed Henry Miller's Tropic Of Cancer not obscene. This new classification would eventually force the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to overturn the 1961 ban on the sale of the novel in that state.

Earlier in 1961, a Philadelphia bookstore called Robin's Bookstore had refused to remove Tropic Of Cancer from its shelves. The state court began proceedings against the store, which became a case called Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Robin. The bookshop eventually lost their case, but were vindicated after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1964. By 1966, Justice Musmanno had to accept defeat. Tropic Of Cancer would be available in stores and libraries in Pennsylvania. He was so thoroughly disgusted that he insisted that his official dissenting opinion be added to the case: 421 Pa. 70; 218 A.2d 546 (1966). Bypassing the kind of objectivity and restraint one would expect from a Supreme Court Judge, Musmanno drafted a wildly hyperbolic, vitriolic attack on Miller and Tropic Of Cancer; oddly, one that even seems inspired by Miller. This passage would go on to become an oft-cited and analyzed example of an extreme (and inapprorpiate, though entertaining) judicial language.

"Cancer is not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity. And in the center of all this waste and stench, besmearing himself with its foulest defilement, splashes, leaps, crawls and wallows a bifurcated specimen that responds to the name of Henry Miller. One wonders how the human species could have produced so lecherous, blasphemous, disgusting and amoral a human being as Henry Miller. One wonders why he is received in polite society."

The above quote seems to be the sample most people extract from Musmanno's prose-attack. I will be doing much of the same extracting for this post, adding only the more hysterical phrases. To read the complete essay, click on this cached EZBoard link, where someone has kindly posted the entire thing.

And, hey, I'm not too proud to admit it: I didn't really know what "bifurcated" means. It means divided in two directions, i.e. forked. ( You know, like a pair of horns. You know, Miller is The Devil. Of course.

Pictured below: Justice Michael A. Musmanno.

"The decision of the Majority of the Court in this case has dealt a staggering blow to the forces of morality, decency and human dignity in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. If, by this decision, a thousand rattlesnakes had been let loose, they could not do as much damage to the well-being of the people of this state as the unleashing of all the scorpions and vermin of immorality swarming out of that volume of degeneracy called The Tropic of Cancer. Policement, hunters, constables and foresters could easily and quickly kill a thousand rattlesnakes but the lice, lizards, maggots and gangrenous roaches scurrying out from beneath the covers of The Tropic of Cancer will enter into the playground, the study desks, the cloistered confines of children and immature minds to eat away moral resistance and wreak damage and harm which may blight countless lives for years and decades to come."

"To say that Cancer has no social importance is like saying that a gorilla at a lawn party picnic does not contribute to the happiness of the occasion. Cancer is a definite sociological evil. It is not to be described negatively. It is a positive menace to the well-being of the community in which it contaminates the air it displaces. It condemns, outrages and ridicules the most fundamental rules of good society, namely, honesty, morality and obedience to law. It encourages anti-Semitism and racial conflict. It incites to disorder. ... Who is the author of this monstrous work, as described by the witnesses in Court? Henry Miller, who identifies himself in the book as a thief, an adulterer and a 'hopeless lecher.' He is irreverent, profane and blasphemous. He lauds harlots and glorifies a sinful career."

"The defendants argued that under the Roth case only hard-core pornography comes within the ban of obscenity, and this would exclude Cancer. The defendant would have reason to say that Cancer is not hard-core pornography; it is, in fact, rotten-core pornography. No decomposed apple falling apart because of its rotten core could be more nauseating as an edible than Cancer is sickening as food for the ordinary mind. Cancer is dirt for dirt’s sake, or, more appropriately, as Justice Frankfurter put it, dirt for money’s sake. Then the defendants say that Cancer is entitled to immunity under the First Amendment because court decisions have declared that only worthless trash may be proscribed as obscene. To say that Cancer is worthless trash is to pay it a compliment. Cancer is the sweepings of the Augean stables, the stagnant bile of the slimiest mudscow, the putrescent corruption of the most noisome dump pile, the dreggiest filth in the deepest morass of putrefaction."

"Cancer is not a book. It is malignancy itself. It is a cancer on the literary body of America. I wonder that it can remain stationary on the bookshelf. One would expect it to generate self-locomotion just as one sees a moldy, maggoty rock move because of the creepy, crawling creatures underneath it."

"Cancer has no social worth whatever, it has no literary merit and no information value. It is a scabious toad croaking obscene phrases in a pestiferous swamp of filth and degradation."

"Cancer was published by the Grove Press, whose printing presses must by now be corroded with the festering mildew emanating from the accounts of human depravity, abnormal relations and Satanic perversion which have passed over its purulent type."

"I regret that the action of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the oldest Supreme Court in the nation, should result, not in Cancer’s being consigned to the garbage can malodorously yawning to receive it, but, instead, in Cancer’s being authorized unquestioned entry into the Public Library in Philadelphia within ringing distance of Independence Hall where the Liberty Bell rang out joyously the proclamation of the freedom, independence and dignity of man."

Not to worry, World. Musmanno offers us his vision of an alternative Literature:
"I prefer to follow the broad clean highway of decent literature, inspirational books, wholesomely entertaining stories, uplifting essays, enlightening histories and novels that one can read as easily as riding comfortably in a gondola."

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, called this rant a "fascinating example of a judge gone berserk." [ref.] Apparently (ref.), he spewed a similar barrage a year later in Commonwealth v. Dell Publications, 233 A.2d 840 (1967). He died in 1968.

Just to be clear, Justice Musmanno was by far not the only judge to feel offended by Tropic Of Cancer. The book Strange Philadelphia (by Lou Harry, pp. 190-195) quotes a number of Philadelphia officials from the early 1960s, on the subject of Miller and Cancer: "A crass example of filth and a cesspool of corruption"; "filthy trash"; "literary smut"; "an insult to sex."

It's probably not suitable gondola reading, either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spot the difference..

"Tropic of Cancer is not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit
of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris
of human depravity."

"This is not a book. This is libel, slander, and 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 of God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will. "

10:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this whole post. Blew me away. Didn't see it until after I wrote my letter to Henry yesterday pm. May have to quote Musmanno myself now.

Cheers RC. Pour yourself a Forty Creek or Crown Royal...

11:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That rant is unbelievable. Any record of Miller ever reading it or reacting to it?

10:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a strong feeling that I couldn't genuinely speak to anybody with an ounce of interest knowing they disliked (not felt indifferent to) Henry Miller's books.

10:14 pm  
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