This Day In Literary History
On August 7th, 1934, the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Ulysses, the classic novel by the legendary Irish writer James Joyce, was not legally obscene.
To be specific, the Court of Appeal upheld a lower court's ruling declaring that Ulysses was not legally obscene. It was a major First Amendment victory, one that British Joycean scholar Stuart Gilbert called "epoch making."
Beginning in 1918, Ulysses was published in serialized form in the American literary magazine The Little Review. In 1920, the magazine published the novel's controversial thirteenth episode, Nausicaä.
This outraged a moralist group called The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) which 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, Comstock 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. Comstock's 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.
When Comstock had copies of George Bernard Shaw's classic play Mrs. Warren's Profession blocked, calling Shaw "an Irish smut dealer," the furious playwright said:
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.
Comstock proudly admitted to being responsible for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides. In his later years, he suffered from poor health after having suffered a severe blow to the head from an unknown attacker.
Before he died in 1915, Comstock attracted the attention of an admirer - a young law student named J. Edgar Hoover who agreed with Comstock's political beliefs and was interested in his methods of investigation, prosecution, and conviction.
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.
At the beach, Leopold Bloom (one of the main characters) meets Gerty MacDowell, who has come to watch a fireworks display. Gerty notices Bloom staring at her. Her passion stirred by both Bloom and the fireworks, Gerty deliberately exposes herself to him.
Bloom 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 her lameness.
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 where Gerty's body serves as the body of Christ. The revelation of her lameness is Joyce's biting metaphor for the Catholic Church.
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 and sold on the black market or under the counter in bookshops.
Joyce's novel became a runaway bestseller, but he didn't earn a penny from the sale of those pirated books. In 1933, after twelve years of frustration, Joyce's official U.S. publisher, Random House, decided to set up a test case.
The publisher imported a shipment of uncensored French editions 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.
The NYSSV was outraged and appealed the decision. The case reached the United States Second Court of Appeal, which affirmed the lower court's ruling on August 7th, 1934. Ulysses was finally published uncensored in the United States.
Since then, most U.S. editions of the novel - including the one that I have - feature the text of the Woolsey ruling as part of the forward. Woolsey 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. The ruling changed the standard for literary obscenity and made it impossible for an entire novel to be declared obscene because of a few offending lines or passages.
When the Second Court of Appeal affirmed Woolsey's decision, they called Ulysses a "sincere portrayal" and said it was "executed with real art." I couldn't agree more.
Quote Of The Day
"I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." - James Joyce
Today's video features a lecture on the legacy of James Joyce's classic novel, Ulysses. Enjoy!