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Henry Miller had complicated feelings about Jews, but his works wouldn’t have reached American audiences without them

Josh Lambert
November 11, 2011
Tropic of Cancer, 1961 Grove Press edition.(Illustration: Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; cover image: Beinecke Library, Yale)
Tropic of Cancer, 1961 Grove Press edition.(Illustration: Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; cover image: Beinecke Library, Yale)

This fall marks the half-century anniversary of the first Grove Press paperback of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the edition through which that notorious dirty book, first published in Paris in 1934, finally reached hundreds of thousands of American readers rather than handfuls.

Just about everybody who has ever written about Miller’s life and work has felt it necessary to wrestle with the complexities of his feelings about Jews. The most recent example is Evan Hughes’ account in Literary Brooklyn, which dutifully describes the “obvious, if increasingly complicated, anti-Semitism” of Miller in his teen years; the anti-Jewish fervor of his early novel Moloch; and the “suspect pro-Semitism” of the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. As the Brooklyn-born son of first-generation German-American Catholics, Miller grew up in a time and place where resentment of the Jews who were overrunning the borough was typical if not ubiquitous. In his career as a writer and in his letters to friends and colleagues, Miller committed to paper plenty of awful anti-Semitic slurs. But he also doted on his Jewish wife (whom he referred to, at times, as “the Jewish cunt”), had dozens of Jewish friends (some of whom he loathed), fantasized about having unknown Jewish ancestors, and adored Yiddish literature—not only the lionized Isaac Bashevis Singer but also figures much less widely known in English, like the humorist Moyshe Nadir.

More than enough ink has been spilled, then, on the vexed question of how Miller felt about Jews, both in general and specifically—not least by the man himself, who addressed the canard of his anti-Semitism regularly not only in books but also in his correspondence. (“The big point, after my death,” he remarked to one colleague in 1971, “will be—how to explain my extraordinary predilection for the Jews!” And an assurance to Erica Jong in 1974: “You must know I am not” anti-Semitic. She affirmed as much in her meditation on Miller as an influence and friend, The Devil at Large.)

Perhaps a better way to commemorate the anniversary of Cancer’s paperback release would be to consider the less-frequently treated question of what American Jews have thought of Miller. Especially because, as it turns out, if you happen to have a battered paperback of Cancer on your bookshelf—and you do, right?—there’s a better than even chance it was one Jew or another who made that possible.

The 1961 Grove publication of Miller’s previously banned novel—in paperback, no less, a format in which it would be expected to sell in pharmacies and grocery stores, in racks in bus stations, and anywhere else cheap books could be found—was probably the single ballsiest move in modern American publishing. The law wasn’t dead-set against “dirty books” by then; Grove’s publication, led by owner Barney Rosset, of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been vindicated by the courts only a year or so earlier. But nobody knew how the law of obscenity would react to Cancer, which went far beyond Lawrence’s explicit love-making to exuberant, filthy pensées on art, death, and the distinguishing features of Parisian prostitutes.

At its outset, the book devotes a famous passage to describing what Miller’s narrator wants to do to a woman he calls Tania (based on Bertha Schrank) and whom he has already described, on the book’s third page, as “the loveliest Jew.” “O Tania,” he cries, “where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed.”

It was that sort of thing that set U.S. law enforcement into motion upon Grove’s publication of Cancer. In many U.S. cities, the paperback never made it onto shelves. The attorney general of Rhode Island told local wholesalers to return shipments to the publisher, and they all did; the same thing happened in towns like Amarillo, Texas, and Norfolk, Va. In suburban Chicago, a police chief decided he didn’t want stores in his town, Mount Prospect, to sell Miller’s book, and he got nearby suburbs—Des Plaines, Arlington Heights, Lincolnwood, Niles, Skokie—to pull all the copies from the shelves, too. The lawsuits began.

Grove had promised financial and legal support to anyone arrested for selling or distributing Cancer, and the ACLU—defending an alleged dirty book for the first time in its history—helped out, too. In the ensuing months the book was the subject of more than 60 individual trials across the country. Judges weighed in on the question of whether the First Amendment protected Miller’s writing.

Many Jews spoke up in Miller’s defense, putting their careers on the line in supporting the book.

In Chicago, for instance, the Tropic of Cancer case was heard by Judge Samuel B. Epstein. A friend of notorious Mayor Richard J. Daley, Epstein was part of a family that perfectly symbolized the career trajectories of American Jews in successive generations. His father, Ephraim, had been educated at the Slobodka yeshiva and immigrated to Chicago to lead the Orthodox Congregation Anshei Kneseth; one of the judge’s sons, David, was a screenwriter blacklisted during the McCarthy purges.

Epstein might have been thinking of David, or he might have been thinking of his father’s landsleit who had not escaped Europe—Eichmann’s trial had been broadcast here just half a year earlier—when he noted in his decision that “recent history has proven the evil of an attempt at controlling the utterances and thoughts of our population.” Whatever his inspiration, Epstein ruled in favor of Americans’ right to buy and read Miller’s novel. The First Amendment lawyer Edward De Grazia has called Epstein’s decision “one of the best examples” of how some lawyers and judges transformed a few statements from a 1957 Supreme Court obscenity decision, Roth v. United States, into a sturdy First Amendment defense of dirty books that would protect not only Lawrence and Miller but also William Burroughs, the pornographic classic Fanny Hill, and eventually books like Portnoy’s Complaint, too.

Lots of other Jews had spoken up in favor of Miller’s novel: Richard Ellman and Harry Levin were among the literary scholars who testified to Cancer’s merits, and a number of the high-profile lawyers who tried the cases were Jewish ACLU members and stalwart free-speech advocates, including Elmer Gertz and Ephraim London. Grove’s chief counsel, who coordinated all the lawyers’ activities and tried a few of the appeals himself, was Norman Mailer’s cousin and literary agent, Charles “Cy” Rembar (né Zaremba), who would detail the controversies in his own popular book The End of Obscenity. Rosset, who had started the whole mess, funded Grove with money inherited from his father, a Jewish financier, and his edition of Cancer included a preface—referring to Miller as “the greatest living writer”—by Karl Shapiro, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet who just a few years earlier had published a rather unsubtly titled collection of verse, Poems of a Jew.

Bradley R. Smith, a Hollywood Boulevard bookseller who was arrested for selling Cancer (and who would go on to a career as a prominent Holocaust denier) went so far as to say that he received support, after his arrest, from “Jews from every walk of life.” Smith was defended by the great Los Angeles First Amendment advocate Stanley Fleishman, true, but his generalization is misleading—in the way anti-Semites’ generalizations tend to be. At Smith’s trial, one of the most celebrated and recognized Jews in America, Leon Uris, testified against Tropic of Cancer. “I don’t think [Miller] is a writer, and I don’t think this is a book,” the author of Exodus said on the stand. “I think it is the ramblings of a pervert. … We have a right to defend ourselves against this type of garbage the same way we would any other ordinary criminal or any pervert walking the streets of Los Angeles.”

It’s not difficult to understand why Uris, who insisted on a vision of Jews as manly conquerors and paragons of Judeo-Christian virtue, would object to Miller, who represents Jews—like everybody else—as carnal, dishonest, and debased, if also, like everyone else, possessing the potential for transcendence. The widespread support of Miller’s novel suggests, encouragingly, that at least among Jews in the literary and legal professions, it was not Uris’ but Miller’s perspective—which understood Jews to be human, fallible, neither better or worse than anybody else—that was the majority view.

With nearly half a century of fully legal Miller behind us, not everyone would agree with Shapiro that Miller was a modern “prophet.” But he was unquestionably prescient at least in knowing to whom he could appeal for sympathy. He remarked in Cancer itself, decades before any of his American trials would prove him right, that “the first people to turn to when you’re down and out are the Jews.”

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

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