During a first-season episode of the excellent AMC TV series Mad Men, set in the New York advertising world of the 1960s, several secretaries are seen gathered around the office water cooler, whispering.

Finally, one secretly passes along a well-thumbed copy of the erotic literary classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was only approved for legal publication in the early 1960s.

The fact that a mere novel could hold such cultural power seems almost quaint at this point in time.

However, such curious secretaries may never have had the chance to whisper about D.H. Lawrence’s famous novel if not for a landmark legal battle that took place 75 years ago.  The case involved one passionate Irishman, challenged the censorship of perhaps the greatest novel ever written, and changed the way Americans read.

A Time for Censorship

Censorship debates, of course, are still with us.  Debates over free or “inappropriate” speech seem to arise every other week, whether it’s controversial magazine covers or shock jocks who, in the minds of some, “go too far.”  Then too, lyrics in music performed by gangster rappers or heavy metal rockers always seem to offend somebody.

So it is easy to believe we did not have these rancorous debates in the good old days, when it seemed that all entertainment was wholesome, everything was black and white, the good guys always won, and jazz – which is now studied in universities and played only on publicly-supported radio stations – was the most provocative form of music.

But censorship was on everyone’s mind in 1933.

The most immediate and pressing issue, in the minds of Irish-Americans and many other Catholics across the U.S., were gangster movies, among them The Public Enemy in which James Cagney played Irish Chicago killer Tom Powers.

But even as cinematic gangsters were killing cops, corrupting women, and shipping illegal booze, a different kind of censorship battle was unfolding in a Manhattan courtroom.

At its center was, of all things, an 800-page novel with the strange title Ulysses, by a brooding Irishman named James Joyce.

All in all, it took nearly 15 years of arrests, court fights, and even book burnings before the battle over Ulysses was finally settled in the fall of 1933.

The Exiled Artist

Joyce had already left his homeland by the time he began writing Ulysses around 1914. His brilliant story collection Dubliners had already been published, followed by his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Joyce then turned solely to his monumentally ambitious retelling of the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. Joyce, however, would have that epic unfold on a single day, June 16, 1904, in the lives of a tortured young artist Stephen and a kindly, passionate Dublin Jew named Leopold Bloom.

Given Joyce’s ancient inspirations and complex wordplay, Ulysses seemed unlikely to ruffle many feathers. In fact, as the novel grew longer and longer, it seemed that few people would even bother to read it.

However, although Joyce’s previous books had not sold very well, he did have an avant-garde following. It was also clear that while he had an interest in mythology, linguistics, and politics, he did not shy away from sexual and scatological matters, the kind of naughty stuff for which obscenity laws were written.

In 1920, after editor Margaret Anderson published a section of Ulysses in The Little Review, U.S. Postal officials seized copies of the literary magazine. Among the episodes which alarmed the likes of The Society for the Suppression of Vice was one featuring Leopold Bloom sitting on a Dublin beach, fantasizing about a fair maiden.

In 1921, Margaret Anderson was hauled into court. Copies of The Little Review featuring Ulysses excerpts were either confiscated or, in some cases, actually burned. On the grounds that the material might corrupt children or women (even though it was the woman Margaret Anderson who saw the brilliance in Ulysses), Joyce’s material was deemed obscene. His masterpiece, more than likely, would never be published in the U.S. or Britain, which similarly deemed the book offensive.

A Second Court Battle

One bit of good news for Joyce was that the battle over Ulysses garnered the book plenty of attention. Sylvia Beach, who owned the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, told Joyce it would be an “honor” to publish Ulysses, which she did in 1922.

Soon afterwards, smuggled copies were making their way into the U.S. The book, however, was still deemed legally “obscene” as the 1920s drew to a close, much to the chagrin of Bennett Cerf, who had started a little publishing business called Random House.

Cerf told Joyce that Random House would publish the book in the U.S. – but only if the courts allowed him.

That’s when the plotting began. Cerf hired acclaimed obscenity lawyer Morris L. Ernst to provoke a legal challenge to the initial obscenity ruling.  In 1932, a copy of Ulysses was shipped to the U.S. and Joyce’s American allies made sure that customs agents seized it, setting the stage for an epic battle over an epic novel.

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.