On this day…14 February

On 14 February 1921 the trial of Ulysses began in New York.

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, co-editors of the Little Review, went on trial on 14 February 1921 for publishing obscenity. Even before Ulysses began to appear in March 1918, the Little Review had had an issue suppressed by the US Post Office in October 1917. Unknown to Joyce, both Ezra Pound, the magazine’s foreign editor, and Margaret Anderson deleted parts of Ulysses in an effort to avoid legal action, but the strategy didn’t work.

The January 1919 issue (containing ‘Lestrygonians’), the May 1919 issue (containing ‘Scylla & Charybdis’), and the January 1920 issue (containing ‘Cyclops’) were all confiscated by the Post Office despite protests from Joyce’s lawyer John Quinn. ‘Confiscation’ meant burning, as Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver in February 1920: “This is the second time I have had the pleasure of being burned while on this earth so that I hope I shall pass through the fires of purgatory as quickly as my patron S. Aloysius.”

In September 1920, John S. Sumner, Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, filed a complaint relating to the ‘Nausicaa’ episode which had appeared in the July-August issue. In November 1920, Joyce wrote to Frank Budgen: “There is hell in New York about Nausikaa. Review seized and editor committed for trial at next session, bailed out by Quinn.”

A preliminary hearing in a police court took place in October 1920 and the editors were bound over for trial at the Court of Special Sessions. After several postponements the trial got under way on 14 February. Quinn’s defence strategy was that the work was incomprehensible and therefore was more likely to frustrate than to excite a reader, a strategy that neither Joyce nor the editors of the Little Review appreciated.

When Quinn wanted to read some of the offending passages in court, one of the judges stopped him and pointed out that there was a woman present. When Quinn pointed out that the woman was Margaret Anderson, the editor of the Review, the judge said: “I am sure she didn’t know the significance of what she was publishing.”

Two of the judges found they could not understand passages of ‘Nausicaa’ and so the trial was adjourned to give them time to read the entire instalment. The trial resumed on 21 February 1921.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.