Sunday, August 08, 2010

No Direction For 'Cancer' In The U.S.A.

“I know all the obstacles in the path and recognize them as real. I think that in years to come, if you let this opportunity now slip out of your hands, you will never forgive yourself…”
-- Miller to James Laughlin, regarding the publication of Tropic Of Cancer, March 1940.

James Laughlin, as a young man of 20, had been turned onto Henry Miller by Ezra Pound, with whom he had been studying poetry. Laughlin’s subsequent fan letter to Miller in 1934 was the beginning of a relationship that would see Laughlin as the first publisher to print a book of Miller’s in America. That book was The Cosmological Eye, in 1939. The original goal, however, had been to publish the book that had excited Laughlin in the first place: Tropic Of Cancer [1]. Despite a daring public announcement to do so, the hostile atmosphere created by American censors made this an impossible task.
Above left: Photo of James Laughlin, from Time magazine, Nov.21, 1938.

Since being published in France in 1934, Tropic of Cancer had been banned in America. In 1938, Laughlin wrote to Miller to announce his intention to get Cancer published in the United States, under his New Directions imprint. Miller replied: “I can’t imagine quite how you intend to get away with it, but no doubt you have plans.” Miller then guesses the plan correctly: to quietly publish limited editions that will be made available to private subscribers [2]. “Yes,” confirmed Laughlin, who had sought expert advice on the subject. The limited edition would cost “five dollars for subscribers, sent by express, with the stores taking orders only.” After a while, once Americans became used to the existence of Tropic Of Cancer on their soil, Laughlin would then venture forth with a cheap edition [3]. So confident was Laughlin that, two weeks earlier, he had advanced Miller $200 against royalties [3].

“I have set the publicity campaign in motion already with announcements,” continued Laughlin, “and will build towards fall 1939 publication of Cancer. It will take that long to get things oiled properly so that everything will go smoothly” [3]. However, it may as well have been a BP executive from 2010 making this evaluation, because the gushing of oil would continue for nearly another quarter century.

The 1938 “publicity campaign” came in the form of a press release generated to the trade papers of the publishing world, which were picked up on by the national media. In particular, Time magazine gave the topic sizeable column space in their “Books” section on November 21, 1938. Under the heading, “Dithyrambic Sex” (on page 69 – yep), the author announced the “sensational news” that Laughlin had plans to publish this “strange” book that “has a bigger subterranean reputation than any recent book” due to positive praise from the likes of T.S. Eliot, and the exciting notoriety of being a “low book” that can only be obtained via smuggling. The article author claimed that Miller’s supporters referred to Cancer as a “dithyrambic novel.”

Dithyrambic: a statement or writing in an exalted or enthusiastic vein (Merriam-Webster); in reference to dithyrambs, being hymns sung to everyone’s favourite Greek god of decadence, Dionysus. You’re welcome.

“How New Directions will get around the obstacles that have previously prevented publication of Tropic of Cancer in the U.S. is still unclear,” writes Time, highlighting the reason for controversy: “Miller’s prose, with its queer combination of unrestrained rhetoric and dry Yankee humor, the appalling clarity with which he records grotesque doings in dirty bedrooms, the fervor with which he communicates moods of despair and disgust, lift this mess above ordinary pornography.”

Read the entire Time article here. It also includes some biographical information about James Laughlin, and some early press for Lawrence Durrell’s own "dithyrambic novel," The Black Book.

Cover for Time magazine, November 21, 1938, in which "Dithyrambic Sex" appears. From the online Time cover gallery.
Ironically, Time included a quote from Henry Miller in response to his critics: “Damn all the critics anyway! The best publicity for a man who has anything to say is silence.” I define this as irony because five months later, on April 23, 1939, Laughlin would receive this letter from Miller: “I’ve been informed from various sources that you don’t intend to bring out Tropic until the late Fall—on account of the publicity created by the article you had inserted in Time. Is that what you mean by delay? Or do you mean “indefinite” delay?” [4]. It seems that Miller was right: silence may have been a better strategy.

In the same letter, Miller acknowledges that the publication of Cancer in America could result in Laughlin going to jail and “possibly being put out of business.” He warns as well that the rule of taboo in America will get worse and may take 100 years to work out. “Adjust yourself to ‘bad times.’" [4]. In return, Laughlin replied that he had not lost heart; he’s just waiting for cash. He felt he needed $5,000 “to promote it as it deserves, and to pay a good lawyer to defend it in case of prosecution” [4].

By the end of 1939, however, Miller would chastise Laughlin for straying from the original plan to release secretive, private editions, instead of “charging like a bull.” “I think it’s suicidal on your part to attempt to force the stronger works on the public, in the face of the bans" [5]. The following year, 1940, Miller agreed to an arrangement with Gershon Legman to publish an underground Medvsa edition of Cancer, from which he would receive a royalty--exactly the plan Miller had hoped for from Laughlin. This Medvsa edition effectively became the first American edition of Tropic of Cancer [12].
Laughlin was aware of the piracy, and agreed to be "reasonable" (as long as still maintained above-the-board rights) if it meant that Miller could see his book published in some form in America. "....If that is your wish, I'll do nothing to prevent the various piracies," wrote Laughlin on February 25, 1940. "Please remember that you wanted me to take this stand and don't blame me for it later." (p.31). Still, the whole ineffective Cancer affair with Laughlin left a bitterness in Miller. A few years later (1943), in the pages of The New Republic, Miller would publicly criticize Laughlin for his handling of Cancer [6].

During the two decades that followed, as court battles continued and alternate plans for printing Cancer were concocted, New Directions continued to hold the American contractual rights to novel--and the burden as well [7]. It was not an easy challenge. Miller would not allow for the expunging the “obscenities” from his novel, which seemed the only hope Laughlin had in releasing it in the U.S.A.
At the dawn of the 1960s, the legal fight for Tropic of Cancer finally seemed to have hope. Legal publication in America seemed imminent (with a fight). But it would not be Laughlin’s New Directions that would print the historic 1st (non-pirated) U.S. edition. Responding to requests by Grove Press, James Laughlin released all rights to Tropic Of Cancer to his American competitor, “in a most gentlemanly fashion” [8]. “They had ample opportunity to [publish it themselves],” Grove Press owner Barney Rossett has explained, “I even offered to be their partner.” But no cunning tactics were required. The acquisition of Tropic of Cancer from New Directions was announced by Grove Press in April 1961 [9]. Laughlin, it seemed, had had enough of the fight.

“As you know," wrote James Laughlin to Henry Miller, a month later in May 1961, “I hate anything to do with courts, lawyers, etc., but Barney really seems to thrive on it. More power to him” [10].

Weeks later, on June 24, 1961, [11] Rossett’s Grove Press earned its place in publishing history with the release the first public edition of Tropic Of Cancer in the United States [13].

The hardcover edition of Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (1995) is still available for purchase through the publisher, W.W. Norton. Although you won't find Tropic of Cancer, New Directions still distributes 17 titles by Henry Miller, including his limited edition Nightmare Notebook.
[1] All of this from Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (ed. George Wickes), pp. ix – xi; [2] Miller, Oct. 19, 1938: Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (ed. George Wickes), p. 14. [3] Laughlin, Oct 31/38: Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (ed. George Wickes), p. 15-16. [4] Miller, April 23/39 + Laughlin, May 7/39: Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (ed. George Wickes), p. 20. [5] Miller, Dec 7/39: Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (ed. George Wickes), p. 28. [6] Miller, Henry. “Another Open Letter.” The New Republic, Dec. 6, 1943; [7] Hutchison, E.R. Tropic of Cancer on Trial, p.44; [8] Barney Rosset, in Tropic of Cancer on Trial, p.48. [9] TOC on Trial, p.50; [10] HM and JL: Selected Letters, p .xv. [11] Dearborn, Mary. Happiest Man Alive: Biography of Henry Miller, “ p. 277. [12] Shifreen and Jackson. Bibliography of Primary Sources, v. 1: A9j, pp.11-12.; [13] Officially, the Second American Edition - see note [12].

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Questions & Answers In Montreal, 1969

In June 1969, Henry Miller had come to Montreal, Quebec, for a television interview with Le Sel de la Semaine, on the French service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). A few months later in Montreal, he attended a public screening of the film adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. I have written of these two Montreal events from 1969, but not of a third: in June '69, he also found the time to greet fans at a question and answer session at his hotel, the Ritz Carlton. This Q & A was written about at the time by Alfred Rushton, in an article called “Meeting Henry Miller.”

Alfred Rushton was a long-haired, 27-year old writer in 1969, when he and a friend went to the Ritz Carlton hotel on rue Sherbrooke to hear Henry Miller speak.

Rushton describes the conference as taking place on a second floor salon of the Ritz. Miller had not yet arrived when Rushton and his friend entered the venue. There was a sense of formality about the room, even the rigid arrangement of chairs, that did not seem to fit Miller’s informal nature. The room was filled with “fashionable men and women,” each of them “posing his own prologue to Miller’s visit,” and scanning the room “to see if they could recognize a great or a near-great just coming into recognition of sorts.”

Miller seemed to be running late. To calm his nerves of anticipation, Rushton helped himself to martinis from the passing waiter. Finally, Miller materialized “in a very undramatic way, just the way you expect such a man to arrive.” He was accompanied by his personal assistant, Gerald Robitaille. Miller, in a brown suit with a bright yellow tie, sat on the “ornate couch where he looked like a man suddenly alone with his thoughts in the center of the curious.”

Miller on the set of Le Sel de la Semaine in Montreal, June 1969.
One of the first questions posed to him was about the upcoming film adaptation of Tropic Of Cancer: Was he writing the screenplay? “No,” answered Miller. “I can’t write a film script. But they’re going by the book. There’s a young guy, Rip Torn, who’s better-looking than I am, playing the part of me. Almost like looking at myself through someone else’s eyes.”

When Rushton’s friend asked a question about the possibility of liberation being brought about by the current cultural revolution, Miller responded with a raspy “Now, do you really give a good Goddam what happens to these people? You just asked that question for the sake of asking a question. Isn’t that right?” Rushton’s friend had to agree. A French reporter chimed in next, asking if Miller was still writing or painting. Miller: “I don’t plan my days now. I just do what I want to do. I could go out in the street and be hit by a car for all I know. I don’t plan for anything.” Miller then fielded some French questions with French answers, all to the same French reporter. Miller tired of this individual, and asked the room for other questions.

Rushton took the opportunity, and asked Miller about his opinions on Marshall McLuhan. “Well,” said Miller, “I haven’t read too much of him, but I think he’s saying some interesting things. He’s a brilliant man. I believe that in the future we probably will rely upon mental telepathy … the written word seems to be on the way out.”

[Read this post here, about Miller’s predictions about future communication].

When asked by another person about politics, Miller replied: “Look, I don’t bother reading the papers anymore. As far as I am concerned, it’s just Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.” About the racial conflicts occurring in the U.S., Miller suggested that “intermarriage is the only answer to that problem.”

Miller smiled when asked what he thought of Gore Vidal’s evaluation of him as being out of proportion to himself. “Vidal is a clever man, and maybe that’s why I dislike him. I don’t know … I’m not a very clever man […] Goethe was a genius. He wasn’t clever. He was far more than that. There’s a difference between being clever and being a genius.” Miller then asked his interrogator if his response was reasonable.

One questioner asked Miller about the many women in his life. “Every woman I’ve had has given me something…,” he replied. A young woman in the audience shouted out “I love you!” Rushton noted the intense, magnetic effect that Miller’s charisma and legend seemed to have on the assembled women and men alike. As Miller continued to answer whatever was hurled at him, while enjoying drinks and a cigarette, the photographers began flashing at him all at once, causing Robitaille to raise his hand to demand they stop. He then looked at his watch and concisely announced “Two minutes.”

Sherbrooke Street, Montreal, eight years later, in June 1977. The Ritz Carlton is in the background (with the flags). Photo: Coolopolis.

Rushton managed to get a copy of Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch signed by Miller, although his mumbled request for a dedication to his girlfriend was left unheard. As the formal event was officially dispersed, Miller continued to casually engage with people around his couch. Rushton, surprised that Miller wasn’t scooted off immediately, wandered back and found a seat right next to Miller. Someone asked Miller why he changed Mara to Mona halfway through Rosy Crucifixion. “In Hindu Mara means hell or anguish and Mara was hell on earth … I forgot I had changed the name. I am forgetful sometimes,” replied Miller. He added that Tropic Of Cancer would have been called the Ovarian Trolley, except for the fact that he forgot the name he’d written on the page.

With that, Miller suddenly got up for the back room, where he said goodbye to someone. For Rushton, as he and his friend walked away from the Ritz Carlton, the experience had felt like an encounter “in one of his recorded dreams, allowing us to become part of the dream image…”

Rushton’s account was published in 1970, in his small press book, Mind Maps (Poseidon Press: Toronto); the table of contents notes that the article, “Meeting Henry Miller,” first appeared “in the Harbinger.” (I haven’t been able to find any details about this Harbinger.)

Thanks to Roger for bringing this article to my attention.

NOTE: All drawings in the banner art have been excerpted from the cover of Mind Maps and are credited to the author, Alfred Rushton. All quotes, except those attributed to Miller, are from Alfred Rushton in his book.