The battle over the U.S. publication of "Ulysses"


The case – The U.S. vs. One Book Called Ulysses – began in July of 1933.


Is It Pornographic?

Ernst was happy to see the case go to Judge John M. Woolsey, known as a sophisticated writer and thinker who loved books.  That was important because now it was not just racy excerpts on trial but the entire Ulysses novel – which features scenes in a brothel as well as Molly Bloom’s famous, uh, climactic scene.

As The New York Times reported during the trial: “The principal question [Judge Woolsey] had to solve … was whether or not Joyce’s purpose in writing the book had been pornographic.”

Woolsey took the time to read Ulysses start to finish before the trial, which began with arguments about some of the four-letter words Joyce chose to use.

Ernst argued that these words were offensive only because society chose to make them taboo – and that, furthermore, they were more honest than evasive phrases such as “sleep together.”  Similarly, the coarse thoughts of Joyce’s characters are rendered in realistic stream-of-consciousness, and thus marked a legitimate contribution to the literary art form, Ernst argued.

Nevertheless, the prosecution had one seemingly airtight argument: certain sections of Ulysses, when read on their own, were sexually explicit and inarguably obscene, and thus illegal. What would happen if a child were to get his hands on such material?

Ernst’s response: “Adult literature (should not) be reduced to mush for infants.” On December 6, Judge Woolsey delivered his opinion.


“His Locale Was Celtic”

“I hold that Ulysses is a sincere and honest book,” Woolsey wrote. “The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men, and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe.”

Woolsey even suggested that readers should keep in mind Joyce’s Irish setting. “In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.”

Woolsey agreed with Ernst that adult readers should be distinguished from children. “I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes Ulysses is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.”

Woolsey concluded: “If one does not wish to associate with such folks as Joyce describes, that is one’s own choice.”


The Big Winners

In the end, there were many winners in the epic battle to publish Ulysses in America. First, of course, was Joyce himself.  Literary scholars – and now a federal judge – had deemed his work a masterpiece.  His reputation as a genius – and one with a comic-smutty streak – spread far and wide. Not that Joyce needed the reassurance.  He once boasted: “If Ulysses isn’t fit to read, then life isn’t fit to live.”

Bennett Cerf, along with partner Donald S. Klopfer, also came out of the case well. Their publishing firm Random House printed Joyce’s book and went on to become one of the world’s dominant publishing houses.  Another big winner was the American reader, who could now alone decide what was bad and what was brilliant.

Perhaps the biggest winner in all of this, however, may well have been the lawyer who represented Ulysses, Morris Ernst.  Yes, he had the satisfaction of helping to change America’s cultural landscape, and brought a great work of literature to the masses.

But he also agreed to take payment for the case only if he won. What was his payment? Five percent of the royalties on the first 10,000 published copies of Ulysses, followed by two percent of all later printings.

Needless to say, Ulysses is still in print, 75 years after Ernst won the Ulysses obscenity case.