Cold Smut: Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” Banned in Dallas — 1961
by Paula Bosse
Today is my late father’s birthday. He was a Dallas bookseller, and when searching on his name in the Dallas Morning News archives, I found this pithy letter to the editor he had written in the summer of 1961 (click for larger image; transcribed below).
It is refreshing that there is such a dearth of crime that the Dallas police department has to amuse itself by resorting to comstockery. The cops have been busy poking through the girlie mags at downtown newsstands, which is pleasant work. Now they have taken to harassing bookstores. If they get away with their ban of poor old Henry Miller’s tedious classic, it will only whet their appetite for more meddling.
I resent a group who seldom, if ever, has entered a bookstore or voluntarily read a book dictating what can or cannot be read. Literary criticism should be left to Lon Tinkle: he gives us freedom of choice. To have a bunch of policemen drooling over juicier passages and then whooping pietistic nonsense is frightening. Dallas is sophisticated and progressive?
After I looked up the word “Comstockery,” I was spurred to find out what he was writing about.
Henry Miller’s “tedious classic,” Tropic of Cancer, was originally published in Paris in 1934. It was considered too vulgar to be published in the United States. In fact, it was considered “obscene” by the U.S. Customs Department, and its very presence in one’s suitcase after returning home from a holiday in France was illegal. The only booksellers in the U.S. that sold the book did so at the risk of being jailed. That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of piracy, bootlegging, and hush-hush selling of this much talked-about book going on, because there was — especially in New York.
In 1961, the book was finally published in the U.S. by Grove Press, and it was an immediate hit. (Grove priced it at an unbelievably steep $7.50, the equivalent today to about $60.00! The typical new hardcover fiction title in 1961 was around $3.95.) Unsurprisingly, the book was immediately banned in Boston, because Boston’s “thing” was banning stuff. But then … it was unexpectedly banned in Dallas, even though it was the #1 bestseller at the respected McMurray’s Bookshop downtown.
Dallas Police Department officials had decided the book violated a new Texas “anti-smut” law, and, on August 15th, policemen visited all the large bookstores in the city and informed them that if any copies of the book continued to be offered for sale, criminal charges would most likely be brought against the booksellers and the stores. (The state law called for fines up to $1,000 and one year in county jail for selling lewd and obscene material.) Dallas joined Boston as the only major American city banning the book. And then the whole thing became a cause célèbre — a “Dallas-Boston axis”!
The Long Beach (California) Independent, Aug. 18 1961
The move was roundly deplored by most of the Dallas public. The “Letters to the Editor” section of the historically very conservative Dallas Morning News contained many, many letters to the editor from outraged Dallasites, speaking out against the police department’s action. Sure, there were a few who were happy that objectionable material was being removed from Dallas bookstores, but they seemed to be in the minority. Even those who vehemently disliked the book were steadfastly opposed to its being banned, including the editors of The News.
As with many other non-issues like this that tend to cause near-obsession by the media, this story would not go away. The summer of ’61 was, for Dallas, the Summer of Smut. Best headline throughout all of this? One which appeared on a Morning News editorial: “COLD SMUT.”
Booksellers pulled the book, but, as the editorial says above, there were almost certainly sales continuing to interested clientele. Also, it should be noted that only Dallas was banning the book at this point (by 1962 other cities around the country had become embroiled in threatened legal action, resulting in books being pulled from shelves). You couldn’t buy the book in Dallas, but you could buy it in Fort Worth.
Elston Brooks, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Aug. 22, 1961
One assumes bookstores in Cowtown were cashing in on Tropic of Cancer sales — Barber’s Book Store must have been doing land-office mail order business.
I thought this was a silly flare-up that lasted only a few weeks, but letters to the editor continued to show, at least through the winter of 1963, that it was still impossible to find the book in a Dallas bookstore. It probably wasn’t until 1964, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the book was not obscene, that Dallas booksellers were finally free to openly sell a book which was published in 1934. No one seemed to care much when the X-rated film version (starring Texan Rip Torn) played at the Granada in 1970.
Sources & Notes
Cartoon by Herc Ficklen, from Aug. 30, 1961.
More on Tropic of Cancer at Wikipedia, here. This article contains my favorite line of any I read from the people who really, REALLY hated the book. It came from a Pennsylvania judge:
“[It 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.”
Tons of articles on this appeared in The Dallas Morning News.in just ONE WEEK. Here are just a few (seriously, it’s the tip of the iceberg):
- “Sales Banned: Police Label Book Obscene” by James Ewell (DMN, Aug. 16, 1961)
- “Stores Stop Selling Book Called Obscene” by James Ewell (DMN, Aug. 17, 1961)
- “Censorship of ‘Tropic’ Looses Opinion Barrage” by Scott Buchanan (Aug. 17, 1961)
- “What Is Obscenity?” — editorial (DMN, Aug. 19, 1961)
- “Book Fight Takes On Circus Air” (DMN, Aug. 19, 1961)
- “Citizens Group Lauds Police Move On Book; Some Less Costly Smut Considered Main Problem” by Frank Hildebrand (Aug. 20, 1961)
- “Cold Smut” — editorial (DMN, Aug. 20, 1961)
- “Wade Orders Study On Smut Literature” by Carlos Conde (DMN, Aug. 21, 1961)
- “Police Lectured On Book Action” by Jimmy Thornton (DMN, Aug. 22, 1961)
- “Primer for Censors: A Few Basic Ideas” by Lon Tinkle, Book Critic of The News (DMN, Sept. 3, 1961)
Every time I came across the word “smut” mentioned in connection with this topic — and it was mentioned a LOT — I couldn’t help but think of Vera Carp and the other Smut Snatchers of the New Order from Greater Tuna.
If it looks too dang small to read, click it!
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