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James Joyce, Ulysses and the Meaning of Obscenity

Most fans of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses celebrate the day of the novel’s action, June 16, also known as Bloomsday. I knew a Joyce specialist who used to honor the day by eating a gorgonzola sandwich on white bread with a glass of burgundy—he said he couldn’t face the grilled mutton kidneys. Fans of the work skew toward the rabid side.

Today, February 2, is the 134th anniversary of Joyce’s birth, and this day is another good opportunity for those rabid fans to commemorate all of Joyce’s works, especially Ulysses. Ulysses was published in February 1922 by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. But Ulysses, arguably Joyce’s best known work, almost didn’t get published in the United States, or any other English-speaking country. That’s where American law intersects with Joyce’s literature.

James Joyce; great authors from the Time Reading Program [//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.42049]

James Joyce; great authors from the Time Reading Program [//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.42049]

James Joyce had worked on the novel for seven years, and Ulysses was serialized in the United States in the magazine The Little Review in 1921, the year prior to the publication of the full novel. The 13th chapter, also known as the Nausicaä episode, shocked many readers with its masturbation scene. The New York-based publishers of the magazine, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were successfully prosecuted in New York for obscenity for mailing the Nausicaä episode issue through the U.S. post. Heap and Anderson were charged with the violation of the Comstock Act of 1873, which criminalized the sending of any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious book…” in the mail. For the next twelve years, Ulysses was banned in the United States and was only available to Americans who got smuggled copies from Paris, as the book was banned in Great Britain as well.

At the time of Ulysses’ publication, the Hicklin test, from the English court case of Regina v. Hicklin 3 L.R. – Q.B 360 (1868) was used by the U.S. courts as the legal definition of obscenity. The Hicklin test was “…whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those minds who are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.” Bennet Cerf, the founder of the American publishing firm Random House, wanted to publish Ulysses in the United States. He worked with Random House legal counsel and co-founder Morris Ernst to orchestrate the seizure of one copy of Joyce’s Ulysses by U.S. customs, sent to Cerf from Paris in May 1932. Ernst believed that the only way to defend Ulysses was to “…convince the government to declare the Ulysses a modern classic” (Birmingham, p. 297); there is an exemption for classics in the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 USCA § 1305). Cerf arranged to have literary reviews pasted inside the front cover of the book that the customs officer seized.

Mayor Hague battler favors Ludlow Amendment. Washington, D.C., May 10. New York Attorney Morris Ernst, writer and lawyer who battled Mayor Hague in civil liberty cases, appeared as witness today before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to favor the Ludlow resolution to place the power of declaring aggressive war in the hands of voters. Ernst said that the founding fathers intended that the power be given [to] the people, but that interpretation and usage had disallowed it [//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26659]

Mayor Hague battler favors Ludlow Amendment. Washington, D.C., May 10, [19]39. New York Attorney Morris Ernst, writer and lawyer who battled Mayor Hague in civil liberty cases, appeared as witness today before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to favor the Ludlow resolution to place the power of declaring aggressive war in the hands of voters. Ernst said that the founding fathers intended that the power be given [to] the people, but that interpretation and usage had disallowed it. (photo by Harris & Ewing) [//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26659]

Cerf and Ernst both wanted federal Judge John M. Woolsey to decide the Ulysses case, as Woolsey had a reputation for being a man of letters. By a piece of luck, Woolsey was assigned the case (Birmingham, 290). Prior to hearing it, Woolsey read the entire book, from the opening “stately plump Buck Mulligan” to the last yes, paying particular attention to the sections the government marked with large black Xs as potentially obscene (Moscato and LeBlanc, 309 and 480). One of Ernst’s briefs entered in the case included the comments of librarians stating their desire to have a copy of Ulysses in their libraries, and a list of words and associated page numbers from Ulysses showing the “forbidding polysyllabic barriers” to the reader of the book (e.g., houyhnhnm, crubeen, videlicet and sinhedrim).

Woolsey’s decision in United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses,” determined that Ulysses could be admitted into the United States. In his remarks, Woolsey noted that “…in Ulysses, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist” (Moscato and LeBlanc, 310). Further, “‘[Joyce] has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about’, no matter the consequences. Some of those thoughts were sexual, but, he pointed out, ‘it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season spring.’” (Birmingham, p. 309) Woolsey wrote, “In many places … it seems to me to be disgusting,” but nothing, he added, had been included in it as “dirt for dirt sake.” He noted that Joyce’s stream of consciousness literary technique required him to reflect the thoughts of his characters, even if the characters were people a reader might not want to meet. “But when a real artist in words, such as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?” (Moscato and LeBlanc, 311).

While other major works of literature also created tests to the legal application of the definition of obscenity—Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Fanny Hill, An American Tragedy—Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolsey’s decision changed the future of publishing in the United States. The decision of the American courts to allow publication of the work also set a precedent for other countries to allow Ulysses to be distributed, although that took more time—Britain did not end its ban on Ulysses until 1936; Ireland never banned it, but it never sold there until decades after its release either. Once reviled and burned in both the United States and Great Britain, Ulysses is now a universal cultural artifact. Bloomsday is celebrated all over the world, and Ulysses is, as Joyce predicted, keeping professors busy arguing over what he meant for a century and counting.

Want to read more about it? We have these related materials in the collections:

KF224.R33 U5 United States of America, libelant vs. one book called “Ulysses”, Random House, Inc., claimant / United States District Court, Southern District of New York.

KF224.R33 U53 1984 Moscato, Michael and Leslie LeBlanc. The United States of America v. one book entitled Ulysses by James Joyce : documents and commentary : a 50-year retrospective.

KD277.L39 The Law reports. Court of Queen’s Bench.

KF4772 .I53 2016 An indispensable liberty : the fight for free speech in nineteenth-century America / edited by Mary M. Cronin ; contributions by David W. Bulla, Jon Bekken, Sandra Davidson, Nancy McKenzie Dupont, Joseph Hayden, Lee Jolliffe, Paulette D. Kilmer, Erika Jean Pribanic-Smith, Debra Reddin van Tuyll, Janice R. Wood.

Microfilm 01161 The Little Review.

PR6019.O9 U4 1934 Ulysses.

PR6019.O9 U4 2015 The Little Review Ulysses.

New York Society for the Suppression of Vice records, 1871-1953

PR6019.O9 U6257 2014 Birmingham, Kevin. The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.

 

 

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