Originally appeared in The Daily.
Landmark 1933 trial defeats would-be censors of racy ‘Ulysses’
It takes a fanatic to fight a fanatic. And in 1933, two gangs of fanatics faced off: on one side, a coalition of Christian moralists and guardians of decency, and on the other, a group of free-speech absolutists. At issue was the right to import and distribute a novel in which a leering Irish shopkeeper pleasures himself while watching a girl flash her undies at him from across a beach. The novel was “Ulysses” by James Joyce. On Dec. 6, a most unfanatical man, Judge John M. Woolsey of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, was called upon to pick a side.
Today, relatively little speech is prohibited. You can’t own the instructions for building a nuclear weapon, nor can you own pornographic photos of a 6-year-old, but practically everything else is fair game. Before 1933, though, the latitude for banning speech was considerably wider.
The decency advocates who opposed “Ulysses” were fighting a battle started by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a Protestant group founded in 1873. In 1921, a year before “Ulysses” was even published in book form in Paris, the society found the novel’s “Nausicaa” beach scene serialized in the Little Review, an American literary magazine, and successfully sued to have the words suppressed.
Read now, the text seems suggestive but hardly the stuff of criminal complaint. It describes Leopold Bloom, the shopkeeper at the center of the novel, lusting after a young woman on Sandymount Strand, part of the southern edge of Dublin Bay. The woman flashes Bloom, and the glimpses of underwear and thigh bring him to a florid and grandiose moment of orgasm, coinciding with nearby fireworks:
“And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O!O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!”
It took a lot less than this to inspire concern among America’s moral activists. As a result, for more than a decade, “Ulysses” circulated in the United States only in restricted, illegal editions. The United Kingdom also banned the importation of the book. Anthony Burgess, the English novelist and scholar, wrote in his memoirs that to smuggle the book on the ferry to Dover from Calais, he had to slice it several times up the spine and strap the segments to his legs.
Most Americans didn’t much care — including the Americans charged with enforcing the ban. Customs officials interdicted shipments, but let individual copies in. That lasted until Random House, which owned the U.S. rights to “Ulysses,” decided to push the issue. When the publishing house’s chief, Bennett Cerf, publicly imported copies, customs officials at first declined to stop them, saying they usually didn’t bother apprehending books at the border. But publishers wanted to test the law, so they demanded prosecution and eventually got it.
The case that came before Woolsey was called United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses. Prior to the trial, Woolsey spent a month reading “Ulysses” to determine whether it was, as the government claimed, sexually arousing and blasphemous in a way that threatened public morals. The book was already well known globally, if reviled among prudes.
Woolsey’s judgment, which Random House liked so much that it published it as a preface to the American edition of the novel, ended up sounding more like a literary review than a legal opinion. The judge pronounced the book an “astonishing success” at depicting human consciousness, and went so far as to imagine and condemn a hypothetical version of the book that would have satisfied the vice patrol. “The result would be psychologically misleading and thus unfaithful to [Joyce’s] chosen technique,” he said. “Such an attitude would be artistically inexcusable.”
Woolsey resolved the question of “Ulysses” being obscene by, in essence, asking whether the overall effect of the novel was to stimulate its readers’ minds or their bodies. The test suggested that a work of art could mention or describe sex and nudity, so long as they served a purpose beyond sexually arousing its audience. Or as William Safire once said, “it ain’t the teat, it’s the tumidity.”
By the end of January, Random House had started printing up copies of “Ulysses” at a furious pace. The longer-term effect of the decision, however, was to open the ports and libraries of the United States to a much broader spectrum of literature. Just a few decades after the outrage over Leopold Bloom’s fantasies, William S. Burroughs provoked even stronger responses from the morality police over publication of his psychedelic horror, “Naked Lunch.” Norman Mailer took the stand to testify in Burroughs’ favor, and to advocate the striking down of a ban on the book in Boston. When Mailer made a Joyce comparison — “I found it absolutely fascinating because it draws me to read it further and further, the way ‘Ulysses’ did when I read that in college” — he was alluding not only to the novel but to the celebrated decision handed down a few decades before.
Ironically, the last laugh belongs to the censors — not the government’s censors, this time, but Joyce’s literary estate. Judge Woolsey may have found something artistically redeeming in “Ulysses,” but one wonders whether even he would have been scandalized by the lusty, filthy letters Joyce had been writing to his wife Nora, a Dublin chambermaid. Joyce’s literary estate has declined to allow those letters to be republished in book form. Even a newspaper might think twice before linking without warning the reader.
The text of Joyce’s raunchiest letters to his wife can be found here.