How Bloom and Gerty’s activities in Ulysses shocked the US censor

Account relates lesbian couple’s legal battle for the publication of Joyce’s masterpiece

Sat, Oct 1, 2016, 05:00


Book Title:
The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law


Joseph M. Hassett

Lilliput Press

Guideline Price:

Prior to its publication in 1922, Ulysses was partially serialised in the New York magazine The Little Review. Serialisation had to be suspended in early 1921, however, when the issue containing the 13th episode, involving Bloom and Gerty MacDowell on Sandymount Strand, was seized by the authorities and the publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, prosecuted for publishing obscene material. They were convicted by a New York court, fined, and had to cease publication of the offending work.

The effect of this conviction was to render the publication of Ulysses in book form in the United States impossible for several years. In late 1933, in what is seen as a landmark ruling, Judge John M. Woolsey of the New York District Court decided that Ulysses was, taken in its considerable totality, not of an obscene or lascivious tendency, or likely to arouse such feelings, and could be published in the United States. And it duly was, by Bennett Cerf’s firm, Random House.

Rather incredibly, the US attorney general decided to appeal this ruling to the Circuit Court of Appeals, where two distinguished judges, Augustus Hand and his celebrated cousin, the splendidly named Learned Hand, upheld Woolsey’s decision, with a third dissenting. Happily, this brought an end to the legal saga.

Behind it, however, there lay, as there so often does with the law, a human drama involving some fascinating personalities and highly ambiguous motivations. The most complex of these concerns the earlier case, the trial of The Little Review. The Review was one of a number of, indeed, little magazines that formed a crucial element in the promotion of Modernism in the early 20th century.

Unashamedly elitist (its masthead read “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste”), the magazine’s editors were (dare I say?) passionate in their commitment to the cause of the recalcitrant Irish author. They wanted to go to prison for publishing Ulysses and were most disappointed that this did not happen.

A major figure in the story is John Quinn, the Irish-American lawyer who defended The Little Review and was himself an early patron of Joyce. An extremely difficult and complex person, he greatly disliked Anderson and Heap, disapproving of their lesbian relationship, considered the case unwinnable and despised the three judges before whom he argued it, believing they could not tell a work of literature from a dead fish.

Meanwhile Joyce, far away and preoccupied with trying to finish Ulysses, took only a sporadic part in the events, though he too, like the editors, was unhappy with the terms in which Quinn defended the work – basically, that it was incomprehensible gibberish which would only incite a reader to sleep. Joyce would have liked a cause célèbre à la the prosecution of Madame Bovary. It was not to be on this occasion, though he did get it later.

All this, and much more, Joseph M. Hassett describes with great clarity and penetration. Himself a Washington-based Irish-American lawyer, he is well placed to understand and assess the issues involved. Above all, as with the best books, Hassett has strong views of his own and states them strongly.

It is particularly good to see him arguing, in the best lawyerly fashion, against other readings of these interesting events. One of the most recent is that of Kevin Birmingham, in The Most Dangerous Book, who takes a relatively benign view of Quinn’s conduct, referring to him as “a savvy attorney”.

Hassett will have none of this, believing that Quinn badly let down his clients, that his own lack of enthusiasm for, or disbelief in, the case he was arguing, fatally undermined the entire trial. One might well feel that Quinn was probably right in believing the case was going to be lost anyway, and in those circumstances it might have been better to give the publishers a voice (they did not speak during the trial, with several male “experts” called on to testify) and let them express their own beliefs in this context.

Similarly, recent rather clever-clever revisions of the Woolsey judgment have questioned its basis, suggesting, for instance, that Woolsey’s is ultimately something less than a ringing endorsement of literature’s autonomy, or, in another, and curiously contradictory, objection, that it confines literature to a special isolation ward of its own, where its capacity to affect readers, to make them reconsider their own lives and actions, is fatally undermined. Hassett ably demonstrates the clear legal basis for Woolsey’s decision, how far he could and could not go, and explains why a wider vindication of literature’s autonomy had to be left to a higher court, as indeed happened.

At the centre of this book, however, though by no means occupying all of it, is the story and the vindication of two remarkable women, part of a sorority that played such a crucial role in the emergence of Modernist literature, and thus in the shaping of our intellectual universe. In a fascinating final chapter, Hassett explores the “afterlives” of Anderson and Heap, and a rich and complex story it is. His work, though it covers the whole spectrum of the trials of Ulysses in the US, is also a worthy tribute to them.

Terence Killeen is Research Scholar at the James Joyce Centre, Dublin