On this day…21 February

On 21 February 1921 Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap were fined for publishing obscenity.

The trial of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap in the Court of Special Sessions began on 14 February 1921 but was adjourned until 21 February. The adjournment was to give Justices Kernochan, McInerney and Moss time to read the offending passages. Defending attorney John Quinn was happy to allow them the time to read. As he later wrote to Joyce: “I knew that two of the judges were more interested in eating and smoking and perhaps drinking and pokerplaying probably or church-going, or maybe all, than they were in reading The Little Review, and that there was no chance that they would read it in the meantime. But the third judge was one of these nervous asses. He reminded me for all the world of one of these restless hyenas that move up and down and backwards and forwards in a cage. He is an ass without the slightest glimmer of culture, but he knows the meaning of words.”

Quinn’s defence strategy was to claim the book was incomprehensible and impossible to understand, and therefore could not offend anyone. Summing up on 21 February, he claimed that there was probably more impropriety to be found in the manikins in the windows on Fifth Avenue than in Joyce’s description of Gerty MacDowell’s dress in ‘Nausicaa.’ The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Forrester, said that the description of the dress was too frank given that a woman was in the clothes described.

Quinn had also argued that the language Joyce used was disgusting rather than indecent but Forrester rejected this “loudly and apoplectically.” Quinn pointed to Forrester and said: “That’s what Ulysses does. It makes people angry… But it doesn’t tend to drive them to the arms of some siren.” The judges laughed at this, and for a moment Quinn thought he had won. But the judges decided that parts of what had been published seemed to be harmful to the morals of the community.

Anderson and Heap were convicted of publishing obscenity and were each fined $50. In addition, the publication of Ulysses in the Little Review was to be discontinued. When Quinn assured the judges that the ‘Nausicaa’ episode was the worst in the book, the judges decided not to send the women to prison – a slight disappointment to the women themselves.

The newspaper reaction to the prosecution was generally supportive of Anderson and Heap. The New York Times summed up the judgment under the headlines: “IMPROPER NOVEL COSTS WOMEN $100 – Greenwich Village Publisher and Her Editor Fined for Producing “Ulysses” – WOMAN’S DRESS DESCRIBED – Prosecution, on Anti-Vice Society Complaint, Said Description Was Too Frank.”

The New York Tribune, under the mocking headline “Mr. Sumner’s Glorious Victory,” pointed out that the language of the Porter’s speech in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (then being performed on Broadway) was worse than Joyce’s language. “The particular sentences which Mr. Sumner’s keen nose discovered hidden away in this unread and incomprehensible cubist work of art were certainly Elizabethan in flavour and very probably violated the statute, as the court heard. But there can scarcely be a debate as to the point raised by Mr. Quinn that the language was disgusting rather than indecent and could not be conceived of as corrupting any one.” The rest of the article took Sumner and the Society he represented to task for their narrow outlook on literature.

The court’s decision brought to an end any prospect of publishing an unexpurgated edition of Ulysses in America, and it took thirteen years and another trial before Ulysses was finally legally available in the US.


Sources & Further Reading:

Anderson, Margaret: My Thirty Years’ War, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1930.

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

Gillers, Stephen: ‘A Tendency to Deprave and Corrupt: The Transformation of American Obscenity Law from Hicklin to Ulysses II,’ in Washington University Law Review, vol. 85, no. 2, 2007.

‘Mr. Sumner’s Glorious Victory,’ in New York Tribune, Wednesday 23 February 1921, p. 10.