"Ulysses": A Couple of Documents Related to the Obscenity Trials

I am teaching "Ulysses" again this fall with undergraduates, roughly along the same lines that I described in a blog post I wrote after the last experience. It's still every bit as exhilarating and exhausting as it was three years ago.

This time I am paying a bit more attention to some of the legal history surrounding the novel, which as is well known was banned for obscenity in the United States in 1921, and unbanned in 1933. The immediate episode that provoked the ban was episode 13 ("Nausicaa"), which was printed in pieces by the journal The Little Review. The editors of that journal, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, were the ones prosecuted in the initial trial, after a lawyer in New York complained about it. That lawyer stated that his daughter had read and been shocked by "Nausicaa" after receiving The Little Review in the mail. The figure of the innocent daughter, "the young girl" reader who might be corrupted by Ulysses became a key rhetorical figure in the to-and-fro over the novel that followed.

1. The documents related to the original trial are not easy to come by online. The best essay I have seen on the subject is a Washington University Law Review essay by Stephen Gillers that describes the history of the trial (as well as its precedents) in great detail. The key discussion related to Ulysses begins around p. 250.

2. One document that is online, but not in a very good form, is Jane Heap's initial printed defense of the novel, and of the Nausicaa episode in particular, which she printed in The Little Review in the fall of 1920 (before the first trial was decided). That essay is called "Art and the Law," and it can be found in an Archive.org uncorrected scan of several issues of the magazine here.

I have gone through that scanned version and corrected the mistakes caused by OCR. Since the document is, I believe, out of copyright, I am posting the corrected version of the essay here as a service to any colleagues who might find it useful:

Jane Heap, "Art and the Law"

THE heavy farce and sad futility of trying a creative work in a court of law appalls me. Was there ever a judge qualified to judge even the simplest psychic outburst? How then a work of Art? Has any man not a nincompoop ever been heard by a jury of his peers?

In a physical world laws have been made to preserve physical order. Laws cannot reach, nor have power over, any other realm. Art is and always has been the supreme Order. Because of this it is the only activity of man that has an eternal quality. Works of Art are the only permanent sign that man has existed. What legal genius to bring Law against Order!

The society for which Mr. Sumner is agent, I am told, was founded to protect the public from corruption. When asked what "public" its defenders spring to the rock on which America was
founded : the cream-puff of sentimentality, and answer chivalrously "Our young girls." So the mind of the young girl rules this country? In it rests the safety, progress and lustre of a nation. One might have guessed it. . . . but — why is she given such representatives? I recall a photograph of the United States Senators, a galaxy of noble manhood that could only have been assembled from far-flung country stores where it had spat and gossiped and stolen prunes.

The present case is rather ironical. We are being prosecuted for printing the thoughts in a young girl's mind. Her thoughts and actions and the meditations which they produced in the mind of the sensitive Mr. Bloom. If the young girl corrupts, can she also be corrupted? Mr. Joyce's young girl is an innocent, simple, childish girl who tends children . . . she hasn't had the advantage of the dances, cabarets, motor trips open to the young girls of this more pure and free country.

If there is anything I really fear it is the mind of the young girl.

I do not understand Obscenity; I have never studied it nor had it, but I know that it must be a terrible and peculiar menace to the United States. I know that there is an expensive department maintained in Washington with a chief and fifty assistants to prevent its spread — and in and for New York we have the Sumner vigilanti.

To a mind somewhat used to life Mr. Joyce's chapter seems to be a record of the simplest, most unpreventable, most unfocused sex thoughts possible in a rightly-constructed, unashamed human being. Mr. Joyce is not teaching early Egyptian perversions nor inventing new ones. Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings; wear low cut sleeveless gowns, breathless bathing suits; men think thoughts and have emotions about these things everywhere — seldom as delicately and imaginatively as Mr. Bloom — and no one is corrupted. Can merely reading about the thoughts he thinks corrupt a man when his thoughts do not? All power to the artist, but this is not his function.

It was the poet, the artist, who discovered love, created the lover, made sex everything that it is beyond a function. It is the Mr. Sumners who have made it an obscenity. It is a little too obvious to discuss? the inevitable result of damming up a force as unholy and terrific as
the reproductive force with nothing more powerful than silence, black looks, and censure.

"Our young girls" grow up conscious of being possessed, as by n devil, with some urge which they are told is shameful, dangerous and obscene. They try to be "pure" with no other incantations than a few "obstetric mutterings."

Mr. Sumner seems a decent enough chap . . , serious and colourless and worn as if he had spent his life resenting the emotions. A 100 per cent. American who believes that denial, resentment and silence about all things pertaining to sex produce uprightness.

Only in a nation ignorant of the power of Art ... insensitive and unambitious to the need and appreciation of Art ... could such habit of mind obtain. Art is the only thing that produces
life, extends life — I am speaking beyond physically or mentally. A people without the experience of the Art influence can bring forth nothing but a humanity that bears the stamp of a loveless race. Facsimile women and stereotyped men — a humanity without distinction or design, indicating no more the creative touch than if they were assembled parts.

A beautiful Russian woman said to me recently, "How dangerous and horrible to fall in love with an American man! One could never tell which one it was — they are all the same."

There are still those people who are not outraged by the mention of natural facts who will ask "what is the necessity to discuss them?" But. that is not a question to ask about a work of Art.
The only question relevant at all to "Ulysses" is — Is it a work of Art?

The men best capable of judging have pronounced it a work of the first rank. Anyone with a brain would hesitate to question the necessity in an artist to create, or his ability to choose the right subject matter. Anyone who has read "Exiles," "The Portrait," and "Ulysses" from the beginning, could not rush in with talk of obscenity. No man has been more crucified on his sensibilities than James Joyce.

[from The Little Review, September-December 1920. Source:
http://www.archive.org/stream/littlereview07mcke/littlereview07mcke_djvu.txt ]

3. Justice Woolsey's full decision overturning the ban on the novel in 1933 is available here. Some of the key passages are as follows:

I have read "Ulysses" once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the government particularly complains several times. In fact, for many weeks, my spare time has been devoted to the consideration of the decision which my duty would require me to make in this matter.

"Ulysses" is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of "Ulysses" is, therefore, a heavy task.

The reputation of "Ulysses" in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.

If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic, that is the end of the inquiry and forfeiture must follow.

But in "Ulysses," in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

IV. In writing "Ulysses," Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks, not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the city bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while.

Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man's observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.

To convey by words an effect which obviously lends itself more appropriately to a graphic technique, accounts, it seems to me, for much of the obscurity which meets a reader of "Ulysses." And it also explains another aspect of the book, which I have further to consider, namely, Joyce's sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.

If Joyce did not attempt to be honest in developing the technique which he has adopted in "Ulysses," the result would be psychologically misleading and thus unfaithful to his chosen technique. Such an attitude would be artistically inexcusable.

It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.

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. 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.

Whether or not one enjoys such a technique as Joyce uses is a matter of taste on which disagreement or argument is futile, but to subject that technique to the standards of some other technique seems to me to be little short of absurd.

Accordingly, I hold that "Ulysses" is a sincere and honest book, and I think that the criticisms of it are entirely disposed of by its rationale.