A Celebration of Artistic Freedom

James Joyce by alex Ehrenzweigh, 1915, restored, from Wikimedia Commons

James Joyce by alex Ehrenzweigh, 1915, restored, from Wikimedia Commons

If you look at the Current Events page , you’ll notice that there are several  “Bloomsday” events on June 16th.  There’s a reason for all this fuss, namely, the fight to get James Joyce’s seminal work, Ulysses, published in the United States, where it ran afoul of the existing obscenity laws.     Paralleling Homer’s Odyssey, (but in prose, and extensively employing the “stream of consciousness” technique) Ulysses chronicles the perambulations and thoughts of Leopold Bloom and several Dubliners as they go about their business on June 16, 1904.  Ulysses first appeared in the US in serial form, in The Little Review, beginning in 1920 without incident, until the publication of Episode 13, which contains obscenities and describes Leopold Bloom pleasuring himself.  That caught the ire of the US Post Office, which declared the material obscene, and burned 500 copies of The Little Review.  Then the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice initiated a trial, with the end result that in1921 the magazine was declared obscene, and the publishers, Margaret Caroline Anderson and Jane Heap, were fined and almost sentenced to prison.

In 1922, Joyce found a publisher willing to print the entire book in the person of Ms. Sylvia Beach, who ran the Parisian publishing house and book shop Shakespeare & Co. (He couldn’t get it published in Ireland or the UK either.) Thereafter, copies from France were routinely smuggled into the US, and in 1928, Ulysses was officially declared obscene by the US Customs Court.  However, Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House wanted to publish the American edition, and arranged for the book to be brought into the US, where it was confiscated by US Customs. And so began The United States vs. One Book called “Ulysses.”  After a bench trial in 1933 in the Southern District of NY, Judge John M. Woolsey – who, to his credit, read the book in its entirety – lifted the ban on Ulysses, finding that it was not pornographic or obscene, but rather that the book showed “Joyce’s sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.”  However, that was not the end of the saga, as the case was appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, where, once again ( in a 2 to 1 decision), Ulysses was found to have artistic merit, and to not be obscene when read in its entirety (all of the judges agreed that there were obscene passages in the book).

As I was researching this, I was struck by all the women who played a major role in bringing Joyce’s works to the public, which is rather ironic when, in some of the obscenity trials, passages from Ulysses couldn’t be read, because women were present in the court – even when they were the publishers!  Go figure.

The above is a seriously shortened synopsis of events and legal opinions.  You can find an enjoyable and fuller history on the website of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

You can find the full decision by the 2nd Circuit of the Court of Appeals  on the website of Pen Center USA

So, even if you can’t make it to one of the “Bloomsday” celebrations, raise a toast to James Augusta Aloysius Joyce and the brave men and women who published his masterwork, the judges who allowed it to be published in the US, and to the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

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