This Day In Literary History
On December 6th, 1933, a federal judge ruled that Ulysses, the classic epic novel by legendary Irish writer James Joyce, was not legally obscene.
The novel, first published in a serialized format in the American literary magazine The Little Review in 1918, had been banned in the United States for over ten years.
In 1920, when the magazine published the novel's thirteenth episode, Nausicaä, a moralist group called The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) objected to the content and determined to keep Ulysses from being published in America in any format.
The NYSSV was founded in 1873 by the notorious Anthony Comstock and his supporters in the Young Men's Christian Association. (Yes, that YMCA.) Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector.
The same year that he founded the NYSSV, he persuaded Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to send obscene materials through the mail.
The passage of the Comstock Act resulted in the enacting of "Comstock Laws" at the state and federal level. The last of these laws wouldn't be struck down by the Supreme Court until 1965.
The Comstock Act was a nightmare. His definition of obscenity was so vague that he even used the law and his power as a Postal Inspector to block the shipment of certain medical textbooks to medical students.
Comstock had copies of George Bernard Shaw's classic play Mrs. Warren's Profession blocked, calling Shaw "an Irish smut dealer." The furious playwright remarked:
Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.
Although Comstock enjoyed a public reputation as a devout Christian guardian of morality, privately, he was corrupt - and notoriously so.
As a moralist, he destroyed the lives of many innocent people. He proudly admitted to being responsible for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides.
In his later years, his health began deteriorating, the result of a severe blow to the head from an unknown attacker. Before he died in 1915, Comstock attracted the attention of an admirer.
The young man was a law student named J. Edgar Hoover. He agreed with Comstock's beliefs and was interested in his methods of investigation, prosecution, and conviction.
Unfortunately, Comstock's NYSSV was successful in its prosecution of The Little Review for publishing the offending episode from Ulysses.
At the first trial in 1921, the literary magazine was ruled legally obscene, and as a result, Ulysses was banned in the United States.
The ruling was a product of its time. The Nausicaä episode contained a scene which must have been shocking to 1920s sensibilities. Leopold Bloom, one of the main characters, meets a girl named Gerty MacDowell at the beach.
Gertie has come to watch a fireworks display. She soon notices Bloom staring at her. Her passion stirred by both him and the fireworks, Gerty deliberately exposes herself to Bloom. He becomes aroused and starts to masturbate, which arouses her in return.
They both reach orgasm as a Roman candle explodes overhead, gushing out "a stream of rain gold hair threads." Afterward, Gerty leaves and reveals herself to be lame, leaving Bloom to contemplate on the beach.
With Joyce's playful punning, the erotic scene becomes a parody of the Catholic Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament ceremony, with Bloom acting out his own version of an Adoration.
In this parody, Gerty's body serves as the body of Christ. The revelation of her lameness is Joyce's biting metaphor for the Catholic Church. At the time, such satirical jabs at the Church or religion in general could easily spark a fire of outrage.
The trial that resulted in Ulysses being banned in the United States drew a huge amount of publicity. As a result, pirated editions of the novel were published.
These illegal editions were sold on the black market or under the counter in bookshops. They made the novel a bestseller, but Joyce and his publisher didn't earn a penny from the sales of the pirated books.
In 1933, after twelve years of frustration, Joyce's official U.S. publisher, Random House, decided to set up a test case. They imported an uncensored French edition of Ulysses and had Customs confiscate a copy after the ship was unloaded.
That year, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses came to trial. On December 6th, 1933, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not legally obscene.
A furious NYSSV appealed the decision. The case reached the United States Second Court of Appeal, which affirmed it on August 7th, 1934.
Ulysses was finally published uncensored in the United States. Most of these editions - including the one that I have - feature the text of the Woolsey ruling as part of the forward.
Woolsey had ruled that Ulysses was not pornographic because it contained no "dirt for dirt's sake." Also, the novel was so hard to understand that people would be unlikely to read it for the purpose of titillation.
British literary scholar and translator Stuart Gilbert wrote that Woolsey's ruling was "epoch-making." He was right. The ruling made it much harder for would-be censors to get written works declared legally obscene.
Also, the ruling made it practically impossible for an entire novel to be declared legally obscene because of a few allegedly offending lines or passages contained within it.
Quote Of The Day
“[A writer is] a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” - James Joyce
Today's video features nonfiction writer Kevin Birmingham discussing his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses on the American radio show The Avid Reader. Enjoy!