How the publishing industry took on the taboo

161212_r29159-876x1200-1480695823Louis Menand at The New Yorker:

Contrary to what, Googling around, you might assume, obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. “There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt.” Those sentences are from the opening pages of Henry Miller’s first novel, “Tropic of Cancer,” which was published in France in 1934. Are they obscene? It took thirty years, but American courts eventually decided that they are not, and therefore the book they appear in cannot be banned. To get to that result, judges had to ignore the usual understanding of “obscene”—most people probably think that if “cunt” isn’t obscene, what is?—and invent a new definition for constitutional purposes. But the decision changed the way books, and, soon afterward, movies and music, are created, sold, and consumed. Depending on your point of view, it either lowered the drawbridge or opened the floodgates.

“Tropic of Cancer” is not a verbal artifact to everyone’s taste, but it made a deep impression on two people in a position to advance its fortunes. The first was Jack Kahane. Kahane was born in 1887 in Manchester, the son of Romanian Jews who had settled in the North of England and made, then lost, a fortune in the textile business. He was a Francophile, and, when the First World War broke out, in 1914, he went off to France to fight for civilization. He was gassed and badly wounded in the trenches at Ypres. But he had fallen in love with a Frenchwoman, Marcelle Girodias, from a well-off family; they married in 1917, and remained in France. In 1929, he decided to go into the book business.

He had plenty of company. Between the wars, Paris was home to many English-language presses. There were two basic types. The first specialized in modernist writers.

more here.