Censorship and Ulysses 1933

Censorship and Ulysses 1933
Censorship and Ulysses 1933

Censorship and Ulysses 1933

A US court found James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century, obscene while it was serialized in the American literary magazine The Little Review from 1918 to 1920.

Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company released the novel in book form in Paris in 1922, describing a day in the life of Leopold Bloom.

New York court ruled Ulysses was obscene, fined magazine for publication

The secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice filed a complaint in 1920 after the publication of the “Nausicaa” episode, which contains a depiction of Bloom masturbating, and the post office delayed mailing of The Little Review pending a court ruling.

The editors of The Little Review were fined fifty dollars apiece by the New York Court of Special Session in February 1921, after the court found that Joyce’s writing was obscene. Joyce was unable to find an American publisher for his work as a result of this decision, however a pirated version did appear in New York in 1929.

In obscenity trial, judge addressed First Amendment free expression

In an attempt to circumvent the restriction, Random House Publishers imported the Paris edition and arranged for it to be confiscated by customs officers.

After then, the government sought forfeiture. District court judge John M. Woolsey addressed the subject of free expression in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses (1933), looking at the novel’s “impact on a person with average sex instincts.” To be sure, Woolsey consulted two acquaintances and “literary assessors,” Henry Seidel Canby (editor of the Saturday Review of Literature) and Charles E. Merrill Jr., who both agreed that Ulysses had no prurient effect on such a person (cofounder of Merrill Lynch).

Second Circuit declined to apply the Hicklin test in considering obscenity

The district court’s decision was upheld by a divided panel of the Second Circuit. Judge Augustus M. Hand (supported by his more renowned cousin, Judge Learned Hand) refused to follow the criterion set in Regina v. Hicklin (1868), which defined as obscene any book with a “tendency… to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are subject to… immoral influences.”

“While [the book] is filthy, profane, and obscene in a few places,” Hand said, “it does not, in our opinion, tend to foster lust.” The sensual portions are mixed in with the rest of the novel and have little impact.”

Hand’s decision foreshadowed the Supreme Court’s obscenity criteria in Roth v. United States (1957) and Miller v. California (1958). (1973).


Obscenity and the Comstock Act (1873);

The Limits on Obscenity (1957);

A New Obscenity Standard (1973);

The FCC and Filthy Words (1978);

The Communications Decency Act (1997).


Censorship and Ulysses 1933

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)