The Controversy

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Ulysses was written over a six-year period, from 1914 to 1920; however, there were publication problems long before the novel was completed. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, who published The Little Review in New York City’s Greenwich Village, were the first to try putting Joyce’s new work into print. However, nearly all of New York’s printers refused to accept a work that dealt frankly with such bodily functions as defecation and that used slang terms for sex organs. Fear of legal repercussions prompted them to refuse the commission. Anderson and Heap finally found a Serbian immigrant who was willing to undertake the task. Regarding censorship in America he observed: “Here the people are not brave about words, they are not healthy about words. . . . You can go to prison.”

Censorship made itself felt soon after The Little Review released its first Joyce issue in March, 1918. Since this obscure publication was mailed to its subscribers, the U.S. Post Office intervened by seizing the magazine. It branded several issues obscene and burned them. Accounts vary, but from three to four such seizures took place, in which the Post Office destroyed all four thousand copies each time. Material known to have been seized included the “Lestrygonians” section in January, 1919; “Scylla and Charybdis” in May, 1919; and “Cyclops” in January, 1920.

The First Ulysses Trial. On October 4, 1920, John Sumner, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, had Anderson and Heap arrested and charged with publishing obscene material. The offensive matter was the book’s “Nausicaa” episode, appearing in the July-August, 1920, issue of the periodical. In that segment Leopold Bloom has a sexual orgasm when young Gertie McDowell exposes her legs on the beach. A three- judge panel heard the ensuing case in February, 1921, before the Court of Special Sessions. Defense witnesses failed to communicate the significance of Joyce’s work, and two of the judges admitted that they could not understand the text. The standard for determining whether something was obscene at that time—the question of whether it had a tendency to corrupt the morals of young people—derived from an 1868 English case, Regina v. Hicklin. Anderson and Heap were convicted—barely avoiding jail time—fined fifty dollars each, and forced to cease publication.