As the publisher of the Modern Library edition and cofounder of the Random House publishing company, Cerf dedicated himself to publishing great literature in the United States. In March, 1932, he asked attorney Morris Ernst to help him defend publication of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), which had been banned from the United States as obscene. After Ernst accepted Cerf’s offer—which included part of the novel’s royalties if their case succeeded—Cerf met with Joyce in Paris. Promising Joyce an advance against future royalties, he signed the author to a contract with Random House.
Cerf knew that U.S. courts would refuse to consider outside literary evaluations when ruling on a work, so he and Ernst prepared a copy of Ulysses with laudatory reviews pasted inside its cover. After it was confiscated by customs officials, the reviews pasted in it could be admitted as evidence in court. (Cerf later donated the special copy of Ulysses to the Columbia University Library.) After the court declared Ulysses not obscene, Cerf aggressively marketed the novel, which sold spectacularly. Cerf’s defense of Ulysses earned him praise in the publishing world. Under his direction Random House continued to publish controversial authors, including William Faulkner and Ayn Rand.