The only time “the scrambled eggs hit the fan,” according to then-UR Provost and acting president McCrea Hazlett, was in 1962, when Monroe County District Attorney John J. Conway, Jr. requested that all county libraries and bookstores remove Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” from their bookshelves. This naturally included the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library and other local universities’ libraries.

It all started with a March 31, 1962 raid on a Rochester newsstand that yielded 75 titles, including “Tropic of Cancer.” A sealed indictment in Monroe County Court, quoted in the April 27, 1962 Democrat & Chronicle, stated that the titles were “‘…so obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting’ that descriptions of them ‘would be offensive to the court and improper to to be placed upon the records thereof.’” These were the criteria for obscenity under Section 1141 of the New York State Penal Code.

In Arthur J. May’s “History of the University of Rochester,” May notes that Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” were “removed from the shelves of Rush Rhees Library and placed in a locked vault.” Indeed, a Rush Rhees Library phone memo regarding the incident states that Monroe County Assistant District Attorney E. Garrett Cleary notified the library on Thursday, April 26, 1962 about the grand jury indictment. The phone memo relates that “[the District Attorney’s office] wanted to know what we were going to do about our copies of this particular book […] [Administrative Assistant to Director of Libraries Cathorin Brown] told them we would remove our copies until [Director of Libraries] Mr. Russell returned, [and] at that time he would make a decision.”

The April 27, 1962 Campus Times relates that Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” were placed in the vault by a librarian who acted in the absence of Russell.

The May 11, 1962 Campus Times notes that there were ten copies of the paperback edition on open shelves in Rush Rhees Library, and “…one on the restricted shelf, the European printing [with] intrinsic value.” The additional copies were procured after the initial controversy.

Minutes from the Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee, which were taken on May 9, 1962, describe the complexity of the situation for library and UR administrators. Provost Hazlett is described as saying that the book was available on open shelves in the library at the time of the Executive Committee meeting, but the book was not available for sale in the bookstore. The University chose to take up such a policy, according to Hazlett, because it adequately balanced academic freedom and the possibly commercial nature of the bookstore—the bookstore did not restrict buyers, and it collected Monroe County sales taxes. The minutes specifically state: “To attempt to clarify its status by making the first case on the basis of the sale of ‘Tropic of Cancer’ seemed most unwise.”

Provost Hazlett wrote an article, entitled “Mere Academic Freedom?,” which was published in the June-July 1962 Rochester Review, in which he defines and reiterates the importance of academic freedom at the University. According to the preface of the article, “The two other local colleges which also had library copies [of “Tropic of Cancer”] adopted a similar stand” with regard to the library-bookstore policy. Also, the article provides some insight as to the end of the University’s dealings with the District Attorney, stating: “The matter was brought temporarily to rest when the District Attorney decided not to take action against the

[U]niversity libraries, saying that he did not wish to cloud a court test of the book’s legality by bringing in the issue of academic freedom.” The preface goes on to state that the original case against the sales of the books was still awaiting a court decision.

The University Faculty Committee For Freedom Of Adult Reading, which had no official connection to the University, was quickly formed by Dr. Joseph Frank, associate professor of English, to support Nathan J. Bunis, who wanted to sell “Tropic of Cancer” in his bookstore. In less than two hours since the committee’s formation, about 90 faculty members had joined. Frank said that members of the committee would be called upon to give financial support of Bunis.

Currently, two copies of “Tropic of Cancer” remain in Rush Rhees Library. One, a 1961 edition, is shelved in Rush Rhees Library’s stacks. The other, printed in 1952, is held in Rush Rhees Library’s Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, though it is currently on display in a case in Rush Rhees Library for Banned Books Week. None of the other paperback copies that the library bought remain in its custody, and neither does the hardcover copy originally placed on the restricted shelf.

Finally, “Tropic of Cancer” has largely fallen out of the contemporary consciousness.

The “Tropic of Cancer” incident took place at a time when the legality of literature and poetry was being challenged throughout the United States. Just five years earlier, in 1957, Allen Ginsberg’s publisher and Ginsberg’s poetry collection, “Howl and Other Poems” went on trial in San Francisco after allegations of obscenity (the collection’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, won the case).

In 1964, the Supreme Court declared “Tropic of Cancer” not obscene, and Grove Press, which had printed the title in the U.S., went on to print Miller’s later works and Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”

Banned Books Week runs from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3 this year. It was created in 1982 as a response to increasing challenges to books that were faced by libraries and bookstores. There will be a Read Out on Thursday, Oct. 1 from 3 to 4 p.m. in the Q&i area of Rush Rhees Library, and readers including UR President Joel Seligman will read selections of their favorite banned or challenged books.

The 21st century presents different, albeit tangential, challenges for the modern library. According to the American Library Association, the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) has allowed the FBI to request “any tangible thing,” which includes “any type of records in any format.” Probable cause has not been required to get such records.

In February 2003, all River Campus Libraries staff members were sent an email with information on what to do if served with a subpoena for library records. “In all circumstances if presented with a subpoena inform the officer that you must first notify the University of Rochester’s attorney who must be permitted to review the subpoena before you can comply with the request.” The policy goes on to state that “[i]f the subpoena is being served outside of normal University business hours, 9-5, M-F, and the attorney’s phone is not answered, inform the officer to return during business hours so proper University review of the subpoena can happen before you or anyone else responds to the request.”

By receiving National Security Letters, libraries were served simultaneously with subpoenas and gag orders, effectively preventing libraries from notifying their patrons of what was going on. In the most famous case, four librarians in Connecticut— with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union—challenged the right of law enforcement to produce a gag order, and the FBI eventually ended the lawsuit. Earlier this year, the USA Freedom Act was passed, and the ability of law enforcement to collect bulk data has been largely rolled back.

“Tropic of Cancer,” however, provides insight into the power of the American university and academic freedom, ideals that have largely remained strong throughout the libraries’ history, and are important to remember—especially this week.

When I opened up the copy of “Tropic of Cancer” on the stacks of Rush Rhees Library, a pink flashcard fluttered out. On the card was a quote traditionally believed to be by Anaïs Nin, the author of the preface to “Tropic of Cancer” and one of Miller’s friends and lovers. The quote perhaps best sums up the “Tropic of Cancer” incident. So it goes: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Schaffer is a member of the class of 2016.



Notes by Nadia: The myth of summer vacation

Summer vacation is no longer a vacation.

Live updates: Wallis Hall sit-ins

Editor’s Note (5/4/24): This article is no longer being updated. For our most up to date coverage, look for articles…

UR Womens’ Lacrosse trounces Nazareth 17-5

UR’s Womens’ Lacrosse team beat Nazareth University 17–5 on Tuesday at Fauver Stadium.