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Commentary: The Tropic of Censor

By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

By coincidence, a day or two before Terrell High School authorities made news by kicking Henry Miller off its literary reading list, I had been reading Tropic of Cancer, the offending book. This is his autobiographical novel about a writer from Brooklyn living a life of freedom in Paris in the 1930s. It was published in 1934 and banned in America until 1964. I was interested in it because it is a clear picture of someone who broke through the restraints of ordinary life to find the freedom to live and write as he pleased. On the first page of the book, he wrote, "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive."

Most of us are unable to appreciate such a sentiment. This is because we have allowed others to preach the virtues of freedom without having to define it. Mr. Miller did not gain his freedom by obeying politicians or preachers, or teachers either. He found it by abandoning the obligatory goals of American life material things and popularity, which he believed to be the opposite of freedom. So Tropic of Cancer wouldn't appeal to students, no matter how many lurid phrases it contains. There's not much of a story line, and it contains no young characters for them to identify with. It is interesting mainly to other novelists and writers aspiring to write honestly about their lives. The English teachers who listed it as a source for term papers probably didn't read it. According to the news story, it has been on the list for eight years, meaning to me that no one had even opened it during this time.

Well, one student finally did. Parents got involved, and so goodbye Henry. The book's sexual descriptions are capable of exciting sexuality in readers of any age, including censors. And this is what censors look for when they ban books. They call it inappropriate language, and so forth, but what they really mean is that it excites sexual urges in the reader. Mr. Miller was of course very imaginative in this regard, hilarious, in fact, a talent that elevates him to a stratum high above pornographic writers. But, again, this is not a book about sex. It is a book about how it feels to be free on the planet.

Here's a statement of its theme: "Once I thought that to be human was the highest aim a man could have, but I see now that it was meant to destroy me. Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles. I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity I belong to the earth!"

A double danger. Sex AND rebellion!

So the authorities at Terrell High School did the removal thing, which seems on the surface to be a minor matter except, as the news story said, they are examining the other 400 authors on the list for so-called inappropriate content. The danger is that they could get so carried away that nothing is left but Little House on the Prairie and A Purpose-Driven Life. My suggestion is that they simply consider the students instead of themselves and try to choose books that reflect the students' problems, their obstacles, their private desires and fears and secret ambitions. Once they are left alone to confront these, then they can begin to find their own freedom. Henry Miller found his. Everybody, even students, has a right to try to do the same.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian and a former English instructor at Mountain View College.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.