On this day…6 December

On 6 December 1933 Judge John Woolsey delivered his decision on Ulysses.

The case had been taken to overturn the decision made in 1921 that Ulysses was obscene and that it could not be admitted into the United States. In his landmark decision delivered on 6 December 1933, District Court Judge John M Woolsey found that Ulysses was not obscene and therefore could be admitted.

Woolsey had given a great deal of consideration to Ulysses, reading the book once in its entirety and reading the so-called obscene passages several times, as well as reading books written about Ulysses. He admitted it was not an easy book to read or to understand but its reputation in the literary world meant that he had to take the time to decide if Joyce’s intention in writing it was pornographic. ‘If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic,’ he said, ‘that is the end of the inquiry and forfeiture must follow. But 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.’

Woolsey went on to discuss Joyce’s literary techniques at length and he decided that Joyce’s ‘attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which 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.’ Woolsey reminded the court, however, that ‘it must always be remembered that [Joyce’s] locale was Celtic and his season Spring.’

In assessing Ulysses, Woolsey was honest about the book’s difficulties: ‘[Ulysses] is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.’ And he went on: ‘…when such a real artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?’

Woolsey told the court that he had consulted two friends who had also read Ulysses but who were not connected with the case, and had asked them if they thought it was obscene. Their response was the same as Woolsey’s own: ‘that reading Ulysses in its entirety, as a book must be read on such a test as this, did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.’

He concluded his decision by saying ‘…my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted to the United States.’


Sources & Further Reading:

Moscato, Michael, & Leslie LeBlanc (eds.): The United States of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce – Documents and Commentary – A 50-Year Retrospective, Introduction by Richard Ellmann, Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984.