Musmanno’s Rant on The Tropic of Cancer (Musmanno)

Anyone who appreciates great judicial opinion-writing loves Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno, but his rant over Henry Miller’s classic novel, The Tropic of Cancer, in Commonwealth v. Rubin, was not one of his better outings.

Miller penned The Tropic of Cancer, widely hailed as one of the great novels of the 20th century, in 1934. Published in the U.S. in 1961, the book, which contains several frank sexual passages, became the focus of a number of obscenity trials.

Commonwealth v. Rubin was an action to restrain the selling of the book. The trial court granted an injunction, which a majority of the Pa. Sup. Ct. overturned on First Amendment grounds. Musmanno dissented, unleashing a flood of hyperbole for which there may be no rival in judicial opinion writing. He didn’t just think the book was obscene. He hated it. Here are some choice passages, courtesy of Lisa Lin:

‘Cancer’ is not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity. And in the center of all this waste and stench, besmearing himself with its foulest defilement, splashes, leaps, cavorts and wallows a bifurcated specimen that responds to the name of Henry Miller. One wonders how the human species could have produced so lecherous, blasphemous, disgusting and amoral a human being as Henry Miller. One wonders why he is received in polite society.

Policemen, hunters, constables and foresters could easily and quickly kill a thousand rattlesnakes but the lice, lizards, maggots and gangrenous roaches scurrying out from beneath the covers of ‘The Tropic of Cancer’ will enter into the playground, the study desks, the cloistered confines of children and immature minds to eat away moral resistance and wreak damage and harm which may blight countless lives for years and decades to come.

To say that ‘Cancer’ has no social importance is like saying that a gorilla at a lawn party picnic does not contribute to the happiness of the occasion.

The defendant would have reason to say that ‘Cancer’ is not hard-core pornography; it is, in fact, Rotten-core pornography. No decomposed apple falling apart because of its rotten core could be more nauseating as an edible than ‘Cancer’ is sickening as food for the ordinary mind. ‘Cancer’ is dirt for dirt’s sake, or, more appropriately, as Justice Frankfurter put it, dirt for money’s sake.


Then the defendants say that ‘Cancer’ is entitled to immunity under the First Amendment because court decisions have declared that only worthless trash may be proscribed as obscene. To say that ‘Cancer’ is worthless trash is to pay it a compliment. ‘Cancer’ is the sweepings of the Augean stables, the stagnant bilge of the slimiest mudscow, the putrescent corruption of the most noisome dump pile, the dreggiest filth in the deepest morass of putrefaction.


Commonwealth v. Robin, 218 A.2d 546, 557, 547, 550, 552 (Pa. 1966) (Musmanno, J., dissenting). Thanks to Lisa Lin.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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