On Bloomsday, it’s always enlightening to remember what James Joyce went through to get Ulysses—the ultimate “dirty” book—published. Sometimes lost in the two-continent struggle, is how Ulysses finally got into the United States, thanks primarily to one Bennett Cerf, the intrepid publisher of Random House in New York.
Cerf was known to America as one of the erudite panelists on the What’s My Line? game show, a staple on the CBS Network every Sunday night at 10:30 p.m. for 20 years. Cerf was known for his love of puns and good literature. He was unpretentious and, as viewers saw, was having a helluva time hamming it up, all the time. “Everyone has a streak of pure unadulterated ham,” admitted Cerf in a New Yorker profile. “Many won’t admit it. I revel in it.” (More on Cerf and his live on-air confrontation with Robert Briscoe on censorship later.)
Cerf, who died in 1971, left behind a wonderful memoir of his years running Random House called At Random. In it, he tells wonderful stories about his authors, ranging from Ayn Rand, to John O’Hara, to Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner. He describes them, in a lively breezy fashion, warts and all.
One of the most interesting—and funny—chapters deals with his efforts to acquire the rights to Ulysses and getting it published. Ulysses was banned by the United States government under the Comstock Act because it was considered obscene.
Overcoming the Legal Hurdle and Meeting Mr. Joyce
“I had heard Morris Ernst, the great lawyer, say one night that the banning of Ulysses was a disgrace and that he’d like to wage a fight to legalize it,” wrote Cerf in At Random. “So in March 1932, I had lunch with Ernst and said, ‘If I can get Joyce signed up to do an American edition of Ulysses, will you fight the case for us in court?’ I added, ‘We haven’t got the money to pay your fancy prices’—he was a very high-powered lawyer—‘but I’d like to make you a proposition. We’ll pay all the court expenses, and if you win the case, you’ll get a royalty on Ulysses for the rest of your life.’ ”
Cerf traveled to Paris and set up an appointment with Joyce through Joyce’s French publisher, Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Company. “On the morning agreed upon,” wrote Cerf, “I walked into Sylvia Beach’s, and there was James Joyce sitting with a bandage around his head, a patch over his eye, his arm in a sling and his foot all bound up and stretched out on a chair. He looked like one of those characters in ‘The Spirit of ’76.’ I retreated a pace, and Miss Beach, a very lovely gray-haired lady, said, ‘Oh, Mr. Cerf, don’t think he always looks that way. He was so excited about meeting you, on his way here he was run over by a taxicab. But he insisted on seeing you today, because he needs money and he thinks maybe you’re going to get some for him.’ ”
Cerf quickly struck a deal with the impoverished Joyce. “I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars,” he told Joyce, “with the understanding that if we legalize the book, this is an advance against regular royalties of fifteen percent. If we lose our case, you keep the fifteen hundred.
“He was delighted with that; it was a lot more money then than it would be today. He said, ‘I don’t think you’ll manage it. And you’re not going to get the fifteen hundred back.’ ”
Nora Helps Mr. Joyce Land on His Arse
Cerf has a great story about Joyce the carouser and his prickly, but loving relationship with his wife, Nora Barnacle.
“When I met him, Joyce was just over fifty,” wrote Cerf. “After he removed those bandages he looked like quite a vigorous fellow. His wife Nora was a typical Irish lady—garrulous and friendly. We spent several evenings together, and the last one was the funniest, because this time Joyce, who always had quite a lot to drink, got really potted. Back in his apartment after dinner, he decided he was going to sing me some Irish ballads, but Mrs. Joyce decided he was not going to sing me some Irish ballads.
"And so a great fight started when Joyce went over to the piano. There was a long bench in front of it, and Nora grabbed one end and Joyce the other—both pulling in opposite directions. Suddenly she deliberately let go, and Joyce went staggering back and landed on his behind on the floor against the wall with the piano bench on top of him. Nora said, ‘Maybe this will teach you a lesson, you drunken…’ I thought the time had come to retreat, and so she and I left Joyce still sitting on the floor, quite happy and in no pain. Nora took me downstairs and put me in a taxicab and apologized for the vulgar display, but of course we were both laughing—it was so ridiculous. The last thing I heard from her as I got in the cab was, ‘Someday I’m going to write a book for you, Bennett, and I’m going to call it ‘My Twenty Years with a Genius-So-Called.’ ”
U.S. Customs Asleep at the Switch
In order to get all the evidence into the trial, everything had to be contained in an edition of Ulysses. That would include all the reviews and comments by some of the literary stars of the day including Ford Madox Ford, Edmund Wilson and Ezra Pound. Since it was illegal to bring Ulysses into the U.S. Cerf was shocked at the efforts they had to go through to get U.S. Customs to seize this important edition of Ulysses.
Cerf takes it from there: “Since that copy had to be the one that would be used as evidence, we got somebody to take it over to Europe and bring it back on the Aquitania, and had our agent down at the dock when it landed. It was one of the hottest days in the history of New York. The temperature on that dock must have been a hundred and twenty degrees, and the customs people wanted only one thing: to get returning passengers off and get the hell out themselves. They were stamping everything without opening it, saying, ‘Get out; go on out.’ When our man arrived the customs inspector started to stamp his suitcase without even looking at it. Our agent, frantic, said, ‘I insist that you open that bag and search it.’ The inspector looked at him as though he was an absolute lunatic, and said, ‘It’s too hot.’
“ ‘I think there’s something in there that’s contraband,’ our agent said, ‘and I insist that it be searched.’
“So, furiously, the fellow had to open the suitcase. And the agent said ‘Aha!” as he produced our copy of Ulysses. The customs man said, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, everybody brings that in. We don’t pay any attention to it.’ But the agent persisted, ‘I demand that you seize this book.’
“After a short argument the customs inspector called over his chief and said, ‘This fellow wants me to seize this book.’ Then the chief started to argue; he said that was ridiculous. But our agent had his way. He was right, legally, and made them seize the book. So when the case came up, that was the copy in evidence.”
A Bad Day for the “Bluenoses”
After the book was seized and more legal wrangling, the trial was on. “Morris Ernst made a brilliant defense of Ulysses before Judge Woolsey,” wrote Cerf, “who fully understood the points being made. The trial, in which there was no jury, was over in two days, and though we had to wait quite a while for a ruling, the judge’s attitude made us feel confident that we had won. Woolsey’s famous decision, which took him some time to write concluded that Ulysses ‘is a sincere and serious attempt to devise a new literary method for the observation and description of mankind.’ He ruled that it was not obscene and could be admitted to the United States.
“The case was appealed once, before Judges Augustus and Learned Hand and Judge Martin Manton. The appeal was denied irrevocably, and that was the end of it. We published Ulysses in January, 1934, with Woolsey’s landmark decision in it—and it is still included in our edition. The book has had an enormous sale; it is one of the leading Modern Library and Vintage Giants and sells thousands of copies every year. Morris Ernst has been getting royalties on Ulysses ever since, but he richly deserved them. We never begrudged him this. He’s made a lot of money out of it but so did we, and of course Joyce made a fortune too. So everybody was very happy—except the bluenoses, the self-appointed censors.”
Cerf makes one more keen observation about the superstitious Joyce. “We almost lured Joyce to America once,” he wrote, “but he was afraid of boats. At the last minute he welshed.”
Cerf Challenges Robert Briscoe on What’s My Line?
But there is a follow-up to the censorship of Ulysses nearly 25-years later. On the March 9, 1958, edition of What’s My Line? one of the guests was Robert Briscoe, the erstwhile Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin. This night he was not appearing as a politician—he was still a TD in Dáil Éireann—but as a businessman, a purveyor of kosher meats.
This Briscoe appearance happened just as a kerfuffle between Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett and Dublin Archbishop John Charles McQuaid had taken place. At the 1958 Dublin Theatre Festival, several plays were scheduled until the Archbishop pulled the plug. Sean O’Casey had submitted The Drums of Father Ned; or, A Mickrocosm of Ireland. (One can only imagine what McQuaid thought of that title!) Samuel Beckett was prepared to submit Krapp’s Last Tape. There was also a dramatized version of Ulysses, called Bloomsday, scheduled.
“The archbishop of Dublin refused to offer the votive Mass,” wrote Deirdre Bair in her biography Samuel Beckett, “which traditionally opened the Tóstal if the O’Casey and Joyce offerings were performed as submitted. The council was unwilling to override the archbishop’s veto.”
O’Casey was told that his play could only be performed only if “certain structural alterations” were made. O’Casey, at that point the most important Irish playwright of the 20th century, withdrew his play in a pique of anger. It is hard to imagine the chutzpah of McQuaid ordering a playwright of O’Casey’s esteem to make “structural alterations”—but that was the Catholic Ireland of 1958.
It was Beckett’s turn next. Beckett—at that time the newest and most innovative Irish playwright because of his transformational Waiting for Godot—was incensed and withdrew Krapp’s Last Tape from the festival. “When Beckett learned the story,” wrote Bair, “he withdrew permission for his plays. He was so enraged that as a further protest he refused to allow his plays to be performed anywhere in the Republic of Ireland.”
It was in this contentious atmosphere that Briscoe, a staid, don’t-rock-the-boat de Valera man if there ever was one, appeared on What’s My Line? The easy part was stumping the panel—consisting of regulars Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis and guess panelist Vincent Price—about his kosher meat company. It was then that Bennett Cerf, the man who got Ulysses into America, asked a pointed question.
See the debate between Cerf and Briscoe here at the 11:40 mark:
CERF: Mr. Briscoe, can I ask you a question? Might I ask you a question? The Dublin Theatre Festival just banned plays by O’Casey and Joyce, I believe. Don’t you think this is indefensible?
BRISCOE: Well, first of all, you are again, as I experienced last year, accepting statements as facts and you are asking questions on things that don’t really comply with the facts. There is this theatre festival for our coastal tourist season, and the theatre festival council were considering taking on two plays, the two you mentioned. In the case of the O’Casey play Mr. O’Casey refused to have certain technical changes made in his play, which made it impossible to put the play on within the limits of our theatre festival director. In the case of Joyce, it ’tisn’t actually a Joyce play at all, it’s some kind of script which somebody has written from a Joyce play. And it was found rather not to suit the requirements because there were certain items in it which they wanted to take out and which this producer refused to be allowed to be taken out, so therefore they had no alternative but to cancel any arrangements they were entering into.
Now it has nothing to do with the Church or with the censorship body forbidding these plays. We are as broadminded and as civilized and as sensible as you people are here.
CERF: [interrupting] That leaves lots of room.
BRISCOE: Some people would like to suggest that we adopt these narrow measures because we are a Catholic country. I am a Jew and am quite happy to live in that country and live as these things are decided. If I were this year as I was last year, chairman of the festival council I would have also have taken the same line as was done this year.
Cerf had caught Briscoe in outright lies and half-truths. At that point, before Cerf can reply, moderator John Charles Daly says, “Here, here!” and the television controversy is over.
Beckett: “They Have Buggered Us into Glory”
This censorship debate is somewhat reminiscent of what happened when O’Casey submitted The Plough and the Stars to the Abbey Theatre in 1926. The play contained a portrait of Dublin as not quite the pious Catholic capital of Ireland. It had whores, looters and drunks. Many of the Catholic actors at the Abbey were apprehensive about appearing in it. It became a standoff between the Catholic actors and the Protestant O’Casey and two of the prominent Protestant actors, Barry Fitzgerald and his brother Arthur Shields. Shields, who fought in the GPO in 1916, famously said that he did not want to have to say his prayers “in Gaelic.” So, there was some serious irritation among the players, but eventually the play went on and managed to cause the usual opening night riot at the Abbey.
This kind of censorship especially stuck in Beckett’s craw. “He was unusually vituperative when he talked about the incident,” wrote Bair in her Beckett biography, “and he used it to illustrate his theory that the Catholic Church, toward which he had long been hostile, and the British government were responsible for the surprising number of great writers who had appeared in the short time since the nineteenth century. Several years later, in a late evening conversation in Paris at the Falstaff Bar, Beckett recalled his fury at what he characterized as the Irish inability to overcome fear of the Catholic Church, and gave a short, bitter lecture on the subject.
“When you are in the last ditch, only one thing is left—to sing,’" Beckett began, by way of illustrating his point. When his audience looked puzzled, he continued: "Il nous ailes en culer a la gloire," which he translated immediately as "They have buggered us into glory!"
I’m sure both Bennett Cerf and James Joyce would have loved Mr. Beckett’s metaphor.
Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.