29 June 2022

Ulysses


Ulysses

This year marks the centenary of James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, which was first published in Paris in 1922. The book was officially banned in the UK and the US for more than a decade, declared obscene by customs officers on both sides of the Atlantic. (The US ban even predated the novel’s Paris publication, as the editors of the literary magazine The Little Review were convicted of obscenity in 1921 after serialising it.)

Random House sought to publish an American edition, and imported a copy from Paris to test the waters in 1932. The following year, New York City District Court judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not obscene, leaving Random House free to publish it in the US. In his summing up, the judge argued that the novel was disgusting rather than titillating: “whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” (The same argument was made by the Appeals Court judge in the Oz obscenity trial almost forty years later.)

Despite having read only forty-two pages of the novel, the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Archibald Bodkin, dismissed it as “a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity.” All copies brought into the UK were therefore confiscated by customs, until Bodley Head—encouraged by the US verdict—released a British edition in 1936. No longer imported from overseas and seized under the Customs Consolidation Act, the book was henceforth subject to the Obscene Publications Act, which has a higher burden of proof. The Attorney-General, David Somervell, advised that such a conviction would be unlikely, and the Bodley Head edition faced no legal challenge from the government.