October 21, 2017
Tropic of Cancer & the SLAPS testOn this day in 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that found Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer to be obscene. This was three years after the book's first publication in America, thirty years since its publication in Europe, and a hundred years since Comstock began to patrol the mails for such "vampire literature." Though but one judgment in a series of significant decisions -- most importantly, those concerning Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Fanny Hill -- the Miller ruling is considered landmark for having led the way to the establishment of a new, more liberal standard in censorship.
It was the publication of Tropic of Cancer in paperback that brought the case to trial. Fearing that cheap editions would flood the corner stores, local authorities launched actions against over sixty booksellers all across the country. When the dust had settled, the old idea that a book must pass a national "prurience" test had been replaced by what has come to be called the Brennan Doctrine, after its presiding judge. The new standard has three important tests, and a book can be banned only if it passes all three: 1) the dominant theme must be prurient; 2) the book must offend contemporary community standards; 3) the book must be "utterly without redeeming social importance," by virtue of having no "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific" merit. Some lawyers call this last criterion the SLAPS test; perhaps the same ones who call the new censorship era, "Miller Time." In any event, the old idea that a book might be banned for its dirty bits is now more or less turned on its head: no book can be banned if it can be shown to have some bits that are more than dirty.
The self-defense which Miller made for one of his other books will serve for any of them: "If it was not good, it was true; if it was not artistic, it was sincere; if it was in bad taste, it was on the side of life." Or as he puts it in Tropic of Cancer:
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