Monday, November 12, 2012

Ulysses - A Short History of Censorship

“[T]he answer will be that it is filthy and filthy books are not allowed to be imported into this country." (Casado, 2000, p. 484) 

That’s usually how these things start and with Ulysses, James Joyce’s masterpiece, there was no exception.  What is unusual, however, is the way and magnitude with which the issue was settled. 

Allow me to be a little more personal with this post because I thoroughly enjoy the subject.  As a professed and incurable bibliophile, collecting Ulysses is my passion.  I own twelve separate printings of this work .  Why?  Because, fortunately for us, Joyce was a constant (and horrible) editor, sometimes correcting the wrong manuscript. So each printing is different (Slocum, J. & Cahoon, H., 1971). 

When I read the ALA website, I was stunned at the paucity of information for Ulysses which simply states: “Burned in the U.S. (1918), Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), England (1923) and banned in England (1929) (ALA, n.d.). 

Ulysses was not only burned, it was banned, seized and zealously burned with enthusiastic fervor. 

By the time the censors finished their work, Ulysses had virtually been banned in the entire English-speaking world.  This unity in action prompted a comment from Joyce that this should make him eligible for a Nobel peace prize (Vanderham, 1998, p.4). 

The censorship history of Ulysses is essentially a history of its publication.  Perhaps no modern book from the outset received so much scrutiny from censors where it substantially affected its entire publication and printing history. 

Due to its questionable content, Joyce was unable to get a printer in England (Casado, 2002). Thus, Ulysses first began as a serialization in March 1918 in Margaret Anderson’s literary magazine The Little Review (Ellman, 1982, p. 421) for which Joyce would write one chapter and then have it printed.  Surprisingly, the first hint of censorship came not from the authorities but from fellow author and foreign editor for The Little Review Ezra Pound who proposed several edits to keep it from being censured by the U.S. authorities.  Joyce often refused (Vanderham, p.18). 

Eventually, Ulysses was seized on four separate occasions by the U.S. Post Office between 1918 and 1920, before serialization ended in December of that year, leaving the last four chapters unprinted.  This was due both to an accident of circumstance and by purposeful intent. 

When The Little Review began serialization, the magazine was already under the watchful eye of the U.S. government as being a politically subversive magazine.  With World War I in the backdrop, anarchists and communists were spreading their propaganda.  Thus, by 1917, The Little Review was being monitored by the time the first installment of Ulysses was mailed.  By January of 1920, the U.S. Post office had seized and destroyed copies of The Little Review three times (Vanderham, p. 2). 

Margaret Anderson chanced on a fourth and sent an unsolicited copy of the July –August 1920 issue to the daughter of a prominent New York lawyer.  She was appalled by its language.  The distraught father complained to District Attorney Joseph Forrester and John Sumner from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (Vanderham, p. 38).  The editors of The Little Review were charged under section 211 of the Criminal Code and trial was scheduled (Casado, 2002, p. 91).  John Quinn, counsel for the editors argued that Ulysses did not provoke immoral desires, citing as evidence the fact that the District Attorney had just read portions of the offending text into evidence without any desirous effect.  The judges laughed at this argument and then convicted Anderson, fining her $50 and prohibiting her from publishing any more of the book.  Ulysses was thus banned in the United States (Vanderham, p.3). 

Ulysses met the same fate in England when the Deputy of Public Prosecutions declared the book to be obscene.  This was done despite the fact that he admits “I have not had the time nor, I may add, the inclination to read through this book.”  (Casado, 2000, p.483).  By January of 1923, England had declared the Book undesirable and began seizing it from the posts under section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act of 1876.  Ireland and Australia had done likewise.  A formal ban, which was irrelevant because it could not be printed or imported into England, came later. 

By the 1930’s, Ulysses had been printed in France and Germany, included some very famous unauthorized copies.  Several scholarly works analyzing Ulysses were written, all for a book that could not be read. 

Seeing its literary value, Bennet Cerf of Random House hired famed civil rights lawyer Morris Ernst to litigate the issue of its exclusion.  Ernst obtained a copy of the Paris edition of Ulysses, had numerous scholarly reviews of the work pasted inside the front cover, and had it imported into the United States, making sure that it was seized by U.S. Customs, and then litigated the seizure (Vanderham, p.88). 

Ernst’s defense was radical.  He did not try to argue that the book was not obscene as had countless other attorneys defending previously seized books.  Using one piece of evidence, the copy of Ulysses with the critical reviews pasted into it, Ernst argued that it was a piece of esthetic art.  Because there is no obscene art, Ulysses cannot fit the definition of obscenity under the statute (Vanderham, p.97).  After trial and briefing on the point, Judge John M. Woolsey ruled in favor of Random House, declaring that Ulysses was not obscene in December of 1933.  More importantly, by siding with Ernst’s argument, Woolsey declared that since Ulysses was a piece of esthetic literature, it could not be banned.  Judge Woolsey’s opinion was so powerful that Cerf had it reprinted in the very beginning of the Random House edition.  The next year, Ireland lifted its ban, with England following in 1934.  The rest of the English-speaking world soon followed (Vanderham, p. 5). 
 (Marilyn taking a break)

Ulysses, sometimes called the longest day in literature, marks a turning point in the history of censorship.  By successfully advancing an esthetic theory of literature, wholesale national banning of books through prior restraint would become more difficult in the future. 


American Library Association.  (n.d.)Banned and/or challenged books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course top 100 novels of the 20th century,, accessed on November 7, 2012. 

American Library Association. (1996). Library Bill of Rights, intfreedom/librarybill, accessed on November 7, 2012.  

Casado, C. (2000). Sifting through Censorship: The British Home Office "Ulysses" Files (1922-1936). James Joyce Quarterly, 37(3), 479-508. 

Casado, C. (2002). Legal Prudery: The Case of “Ulysses”. Journal of Modern Literature, 26(1), 90-98. 

Ellman, R. (1982). James Joyce. Oxford University Press: New York. 

Slocum, J. & Cahoon, H. (1971). A Bibliography of James Joyce [1882-1941].  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 

Vanderham, P. (1998). James Joyce and Censureship. New York: New York University Press.


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