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].


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