James Joyce's Ulysses
Where It's Always June 16, 1904


The Trial

Tracy Schanck

The Court Trial of Ulysses

            The final installment of James Joyce’s Ulysses appeared in a small Greenwich Village magazine, The Little Review, prior to the trial on February 14, 1921. The manuscript was said to have “supposedly obscene content” which went against the publishing requirements in Britain and the United States (“Will Morality Die With the 20th Century?”). The publisher of The Little Review was tried under section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, Title 19 United States Code, Section 1305. The publisher was found guilty of not being allowed to publish any more versions and suffered a fifty dollar fine. The argument  was that Joyce is “unintelligible” narrative was due to his glaucoma and that the magazine was too small to cause any severe harm to the public (“James Joyce’s Ulysses”). This battle received a large amount of press coverage nationwide, as well as in the international literary community. Prior to the court appearance, the magazine published enough of Ulysses from March 1918 to December 1920 to gain popularity amongst the literary community. Despite the loss in court, the popularity of the novel made the decision “an absurd act of puritanic spleen” amongst the literary contemporaries. This popularity may have helped the decision of Judge Woolsey later during the Supreme Court trial.

            American Sylvia Beach, an owner of a Parisian English-language bookstore called Shakespeare and Company, was a supporter of Joyce’s throughout the trial. “As a bookseller-proponent of Modern literature, Beach moved in circles and was familiar with many of the writers whose books appeared on her shelves” (Mchaffey). When Joyce arrived with the manuscript in 1920, she was more than willing to publish his works. Joyce’s previous publishing offers from American-based publishing houses such as B.W. Huebsch and Boni & Liveright, were canceled due to the trial. Being that her publishing would be done in Paris, she would be able to forgo the problems of the ban in Britain and the United States. Beach’s first publication was on February 2, 1922 by Shakespeare and Company (James Joyce’s Ulysses).

            With Beach’s publishing, Ulysses sold out immediately. This new fame brought about the admiration of renowned poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and novelist Ernest Hemmingway. His book was regularly smuggled into the United States and Great Britain, with readers hailing Joyce as the greatest modern writer of English prose. Random House publishing caught on to the brilliance of Ulysses and waged a four-year battle for publishing rights (James Joyce’s Ulysses).

            The trial took place on November 25, 1933, in a New York Supreme Court. Ulysses is said to be obscene with in Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, Title 19 United States Code, Section 1305 and for that reason should not be imported into the United States. Not only should it not be imported, but should be “a subject to seizure, forfeiture and confiscation and destruction.” United States Attorneys Samuel C. Coleman and Nicholas Atlas supported the “motion for a decree of forfeiture and are in opposition for a decree dismissing the libel” (Will Morality Die with the 20th Century?). Attorney for claimant Random House, Inc., Morris L. Ernst and Alexander Lindey, “ support the motion for a decree dismissing the libel and oppose the motion for a decree of forfeiture” (United States District Court). Under the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibited certain importations, “books on physiology, medicine, science, and sex instruction are not 'obscene' within statute prohibiting importation of any 'obscene' book, though to some extent and among some persons they may tend to promote lustful thoughts” (Will Morality Die with the 20th Century?) Random House Inc. won this case and Ulysses was published in the United States.

            This was not won without opposition. Judge Martin Manton and Judge Learned Hand dissented, stating that “fundamental values should be expressed in a work of art and that one should not be diverted for the obscenity of the book”(Will Morality Die With the 20th Century?). Judge J. Woolsey disagreed. Judge Woolsey stated, “ a motion for decree dismissing the libel herein is granted, and, consequently, of course, the government’s motion for a decree of forfeiture and destruction is denied” (United States District Court). His feelings about this case were explained in detail throughout his opinion. Judge Woolsey discusses how he read the book, concentrating on the sections in which the government complains. He feels that lengthy readings of this book are required in order to make a fair judgment in court. He understands that Ulysses is a difficult book to read and that reading other related “satellite” books is appropriate.  The next step that he took was determining why the book was written in the manner that it was. Was the book written for the intent of obscenity? If so, was pornography used as well? He came to the conclusion that although there is frankness in language, he does not detect sensuality; therefore it is not pornographic. The current meaning of the word 'obscene,' as legally defined by the Courts in Dunlop v. United States, 165 U.S. 486, 501 is "tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts”.

            Woolsey also claims that Joyce is experimenting with a new 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 that 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” (United States District Court). While doing so, Joyce shows the “screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscope 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”(United States District Court). He gives the view of his characters, not only to show a wide arrange of view points throughout the story, but also to show how they are all interrelated. In order to do this, Judge Woolsey feels that the crude language and obscenity is necessary. To show the characters in any other light other than in a crude, humanistic one would be “psychologically misleading,” according to Woolsey (United States District Court). Joyce’s main goal is to show what his characters would truly be seeing or feeling on that particular day in June.  As for the language choice, Woolsey feels, “The words that 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 naturally and habitually used, I believe by the types of folks whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe.” To convey this level of realism, Joyce must use words that 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, states Woolsey. It must also be remembered that his “locale was Celtic and his season Spring. Sexual thoughts and budding flowers are in the air.

            Furthermore, Woolsey states, “Ulysses is an amazing tour de force when one considers the success which has been in the main achieved with such a difficult objective as Joyce has set for himself” (United States District Court). Woolsey feels that there is no word in this novel that is dirty just for the sake of being dirty. He states that each word in the novel is pieced together, much like a mosaic. When all of the words are pieced together the true intentions of Joyce is clear. His masterpiece becomes brilliant. “The exquisite precision of Joyce’s language resembles that of a sacred scripture, even while its bawdy vibrancy evokes pub talk. At its best, the language of Ulysses takes on a life of its own, provoking, teasing, and inspiring the reader over the heads of the characters”(Untited States Disrict Court). Woolsey summed up his opinion by stating, “Ulysses may, therefore be admitted into the United States.”

            The fact that Joyce’s Ulysses had such difficulty gaining admittance in the United States and Great Britain brought literary censorship to light. Ulysses opened the door to “many provocative questions about literary censorship and the terms in which it did and does take place,” according to Brown. Brown feels, “an extended awareness of the power and influence of those agents of the law and of supposed morality whose self-defeating attempts to suppress Joyce’s book ensured them unenviable places in the rouge’s gallery of the century. (United States District Court)” Brown also considers Woolsey’s Opinion to be one of the most circulated criticisms written on Ulysses. Brown’s observation that “This is a book which works well to expose the necessary expediencies, the weakness and the confusion of the juridical process surrounding obscenity law and carefully avoids attempting to replace them with a polemic for any particular resolution, or any overwhelming new definition of freedom or of art.”

Annotated Bibliography

Brown, Richard. “James Joyce and Censorship.” Rev. of James Joyce and Censorship. By Paul Vanderham. Irish Studies Review April 19999:117.

This explains different theories of the impact of the trial. It also goes into the questions of literary censorship and literary criticism.


Collins, Dr. Joseph. “James Joyce’s Amazing Chronicle.” Rev. of Ulysses. By James

Joyce. New York Times 28 May 1922.

This source explains what the difficulty that can be expected while reading Ulysses. He describes why a reader may feel insecure while reading it and why the author may have written in this manner.


“James Joyce’s Ulysses.” Culture Shock. PBS. 1999. 24 September. 2002 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/literature/ulysses.html.

This source is a brief outline of the series of publishing Ulysses went through. It gives dates, names, and brief descriptions of the events.


Mahaffey, Vicki. “Why Read Ulysses?” Ulysses In Hand: The Rosenbach Manuscript.            University of Pennsylvania. June 1999 http://www.rosenbach.org/happenings/ul100.html.

This source was used to understand the depth of the obscenity in Ulysses. It also discusses the manner in which Joyce uses that language.


United States District Court. Opinion A. 110-59. Southern District of New York. 1933.

This source was the most helpful. It was a copy of Judge Woolsey’s Opinion. He went into detail on reason’s why Ulysses should be allowed in the United States.


“Will Morality Die With The 20th Century?” James Joyce Foundation. Ozemail. 1997. 24        September 2002.http://members.ozemail.com.au/~caveman/Joyce/SJJF/.html.

This source explains the effect that the trial had on society and impact of literary freedom.