Today, James Joyce’s Ulysses is considered a classic novel with a secure place in the Western literary canon. English professors and scholars around the world praise the novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique and incredible depth. However, the novel was not always readily available to the public, being banned soon after its publication. In fact, when Joyce decided to publish the novel, he could not find an English publisher that would work with him. A French publisher, Shakespeare and Company, finally agreed to publish the novel and it was available in 1922. Despite this successful publication, several English speaking countries of the world banned Ulysses because of its “obscenity.” A series of court battles ensued to determine the legality of selling Ulysses in the United States.
The question of Ulysses’ legality in the United States was heard in the court case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses. In 1933, Random House, a publishing company with rights to publish the entirety of Ulysses, decided to instigate a test case against the ban of the book. Random House therefore made an arrangement to import the edition published in France and have a copy seized by the US Customs Service when the ship carrying the work arrived. After Customs confiscated the copies of the book, it took the US Attorney’s Office several months to decide whether to proceed further. The office of the US Attorney finally decided to take action against the book under the Tariff Act of 1930, which allowed a district attorney to bring an action for forfeiture and destruction of imported works which were obscene.
Ulysses was considered obscene because of Episode 13. In this part of the novel, Leopold Bloom and Gerty have a sexual interaction in which Gerty exposes her legs and underwear to Leopold Bloom while she lays on the ground, watching fireworks. Leopold Bloom presumably masturbates as a result of Gerty’s actions as he “puts his hands in his pockets”. The scene’s climax occurs when the fireworks end with a firework in the shape of a “Roman candle bursting in the air.” This moment conveys Bloom’s orgasm and ends his sexual interaction with Gerty.
Judge John M. Woolsey presided over the trial of the United States v. One Book Called Ulysses and he decided that Ulysses was not pornographic. To make this decision, Judge Woolsey spent weeks reading Ulysses, which he described as “not an easy book to read or to understand,” and “a heavy task” (United States v. One Book Called” Ulysses”). The judge ultimately found that the novel was serious and that its author was sincere and honest in showing how the minds of his characters operate and what they were thinking. Therefore, Ulysses was not legally considered obscene and a decade after it was published, it was legally allowed to be sold and obtained in the United States.
Since the uplift of the ban on Ulysses, James Joyce’s novel has been enjoyed and celebrated by millions of Americans. It has been labeled a “literary masterpiece” and entered the American literary canon. The book is so highly praised because of its stream-of-consciousness technique. James Joyce popularized this technique and it is a literary technique that attempts to portray the complexity of human ideas and thoughts through literature. The novel’s attempt at showing the complexity of human thought has made it difficult to read and scholars have argued over the meaning of the novel since it was published. However, an important lesson to take away from Ulysses is that novels must be protected and allowed to be sold and circulated. Novels have the distinct ability of conveying important lessons and messages. Without protecting their legality, their messages will simply fade into oblivion. It is important to preserve the legality of books like Ulysses to ensure that their messages live on. Lehigh Special Collections holds three different editions of Joyce’s Ulysses: the first edition published by Shakespeare and Company, the Limited Editions Club version with artwork by Henri Matisse, and a facsimile copy of the manuscript.