On 25 January 1934 the first authorised edition of Ulysses is published in the America.
Ulysses first appeared in the US in March 1918 in serial form in the Little Review, edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. Several issues of the Little Review were seized by the US postal authorities, and John S. Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice took a case against Anderson and Heap that led to a complete ban on Ulysses in 1921.
Capitalising on this, Samuel Roth, a notorious American publisher of erotica, published excerpts from Ulysses in his Two Worlds magazine, and in 1929, he pirated a facsimile of Ulysses without Joyce’s permission and without paying Joyce. Roth’s text was also badly typeset and included many errors and corruptions.
Joyce, anxious to get the American ban lifted, signed a contract with Ben Huebsch of Random House in 1932. A copy of Ulysses was sent from Paris to New York and seized by customs as obscene. Despite the hopes of Joyce’s agents, the District Attorney decided to go ahead with the court case in November 1932. Joyce’s attorneys delayed the case waiting to a liberal judge to come up, and in August 1933 their preferred judge was John M Woolsey. Morris Ernst, Joyce’s attorney, wrote: “If Woolsey isn’t sitting, we don’t want to have the papers presented to another judge. Woolsey wants the case…We don’t care how long he takes to read the book.”
Woolsey did take his time to read the book, and the case only got underway on 25 November 1933. Morris Ernst spoke for an hour in defence of Ulysses, followed by Assistant District Attorney Samuel Coleman who claimed that the book could be considered obscene because of the effect it had on the reader. He claimed that something was obscene when its primary purpose was to excite sexual feeling, and that whether Joyce intended it or not, the book could be deemed to be obscene.
After considering all the submissions, Woolsey delivered his decision on 6 December 1933, in favour of Ulysses. In his decision, Woolsey stated: “I have read Ulysses once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times… 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…Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.”
Just the week before, Prohibition had also been repealed in America, was not lost on those involved in the Ulysses case. As Morris Ernst put it: “The first week of December 1933 will go down in history for two repeals, that of Prohibition and that of squeamishness in literature. We may now imbibe freely of the contents of bottles and forthright books.”
Woolsey’s decision was headline news and the publicity helped sales. By 17 January 1934, advance sales had reached 12,000 copies. Random House had an extra 100 copies of the book printed so that they could be used to secure Joyce’s copyright, and it was these 100 copies that were published on 25 January 1934, just fifty days after Judge Woolsey’s decision.
It was an instant bestseller. By April, Random House had sold 35,000 copies, more than doubling the total sales of Ulysses to date. But there were problems. The text the printers used was not the text Joyce favoured but the corrupt text of Samuel Roth’s pirated facsimile, a mistake that wasn’t corrected until 1940.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Moscato, Michael, and Leslie le Blanc (eds): The United States of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce – Documents and Commentary – A 50-Year Retrospective, with an Introduction by Richard Ellmann, University Publications of America, Inc. 1984.