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.

The Repercussions

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Once Ulysses was labeled “obscene, copyrighting it in the United States became impossible, effectively ending any chance for the book’s legitimate publication in the United States for many years. The book’s publication might have been left unfinished for many years, had it not been for the intervention of Sylvia Beach, the owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. In France’s more liberal atmosphere she was able to issue the first complete edition of the novel in February, 1922. Throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s, the once-obscure novel gained an international reputation in literary circles and beyond. Censorship, however, continued unabated in many nations. In 1922 imported copies of Ulysses were burned in Ireland and Canada, and five hundred copies were burned by the U.S. Post Office. The following year saw the destruction of another five hundred copies at the port of Folkstone by British customs officers. Nevertheless, efforts to suppress the book ultimately failed. Pirated reprintings of the Paris edition continued to turn up in America, but without royalty payments for Joyce. Even after a 1928 customs court judge condemned the book, thousands of copies of the Paris edition found their way into the United States. Ulysses became the forbidden fruit: Daring Paris tourists smuggled blue paper-covered copies of the book out of France—under their clothes, or perhaps disguised as Bibles. By the early 1930’s, this banned novel had even found its way into libraries as well as thousands of private homes. Since customs officials were unable to stop this smuggling, the task of censorship fell to individual librarians. In a 1930 address, George F. Bowerman, of the District of Columbia’s public library system, wanted to relegate Ulysses “to a medical library or a library of abnormal psychology.”

The Second Trial

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Eventually Random House, an American publisher, decided to force a test case. After signing a contract with Joyce in 1932, Random House arranged to have a copy of Ulysses seized by customs officials in New York. The seized copy was bulging with copies of favorable reviews that had been pasted in—a ploy that was necessary in order to ensure that the reviews would be admitted as evidence in court. In the ensuing legal case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, the government declared that the book was obscene under the terms of the Tariff Act of 1930. Judge John M. Woolsey presided over book’s trial, which opened in the fall of 1933 and closed with a decision lifting the ban in early December. Woolsey significantly liberalized the definition of obscenity in the United States. Whereas the Hicklin test could ban a book based upon a single paragraph, Woolsey decided that obscene intent should be determined by viewing the work as a whole—even if some passages could give offense. The decision was upheld by an appeals court, and Random House formally published Ulysses the following January.

While Woolsey’s decision legalized publication of the book, censorship continued in other forms. In 1960, for example, Caedmon Records released recorded readings of two of the novel’s characters, Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly. The publisher made no mention of the fact that the recorded passages had been expurgated. A film adaptation of the book made by Joseph Strick in 1967 was heavily cut by the British Board of Film Censors—especially Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of the novel. However, the board later relented, and the excised material was restored in 1970. Ironically, a 1995 edition of the book in China—a country long known for censorship—was published intact.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Dublin. Ireland’s capital city and principal east coast port on the Irish Sea, through which a young Irish writer and teacher named Stephen Dedalus (whom Joyce introduced in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1914) and the Jewish advertising salesman Leopold Bloom wander until they eventually meet. The novel explores streets, shops, public houses, and countless other places found along their routes.

In 1904, Dublin is a city with a population of about three hundred thousand people. Ireland is still under the rule of Great Britain, whose local governor lives in a regal house in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and governs from Dublin Castle. The city as a whole is a complex mix, with both wretched slums and lingering remnants of eighteenth century elegance. More than twenty thousand families live in one-room tenement apartments, many of which house four or more people. Dublin is also a city with an interesting history of Anglo-Irish literary and cultural activity and a kind of urban energy that tends to countermand James Joyce’s estimate of psychological “paralysis.” Dublin provided Joyce with the raw material for a cosmos built on patient attention to the minute particulars of city life. The dense texture of metropolitan detail in Ulysses complements and offers paths into the psychological substance of the novel’s characters.

Many chapters depict the protagonists as well as multiple groups of people traveling routes across the landscape of Dublin. Throughout the book, the substance of the city is solidified by the landmarks and streets that are mentioned, ranging from well-known places such as Mountjoy Square, Grafton Street, and Phoenix Park, to a diversity of shops, pubs, tramcar stops, and quays.


*Sandycove. Suburb southeast of Dublin now known as Dun Laoghlaire, in which Dedalus, in one of the versions of the narrative consciousness (along with Leopold and Molly Bloom) that operates in the novel, is living as the novel opens. Dedalus shares rooms with the medical student Buck Mulligan in Martello Tower, built on the Dublin coast as one of seventy-four similar defensive constructions erected in anticipation of a French invasion. (The tower was later converted into the James Joyce Tower Museum.)

*Dalkey Avenue

*Dalkey Avenue. Sandycove street on which the Clifton School, at which Joyce taught briefly as a young man, stands, and the location, near the Martello Tower, of the unnamed school from which Stephen is about to resign when the story begins.


*Sandymount. Beach several miles up the coast from Sandycove, along which Dedalus walks past the decaying house of his uncle Richie Goulding in the chapter that concludes the first section of the novel....

(The entire section is 1162 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Irish Struggle for Independence: From the 1860s to World War I
The term, home rule, refers to an Irish movement for...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Stream of Consciousness
The stream-of-consciousness novel takes as its subject the interior thought sequence and...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1900s: The eighteenth-century Martello Tower in which James Joyce lives in 1904 is a rented apartment, one of many...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Spend several hours walking around your neighborhood, noting people you see and events as they occur. Later, make a map of your journey and...

(The entire section is 157 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

An audio book abridgement of Ulysses, read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, became available in 1995 from Naxos. The four cassettes...

(The entire section is 73 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

To prepare for reading Ulysses, people should first read James Joyce’s Dubliners and then his Portrait of the Artist as a Young...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Bell, Robert H., “Bloomsday at 100,” in Commonweal, Vol. 131, No. 10, May 21, 2004, pp. 15–17....

(The entire section is 313 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Benstock, Bernard, ed. Critical Essays on James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. Contains a cross-section of criticism from the early to the more recent. Special emphasis is given to the “Nausicaa” episode.

Ellman, Richard. James Joyce. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Widely considered the finest literary biography of the twentieth century. Contains extensive discussion and analysis of Ulysses. Highly recommended.

Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” New York: Vintage Books, 1955. Still highly valuable. Covers the novel chapter by chapter; discusses in useful outlines many of the schemata underlying the novel. A good...

(The entire section is 230 words.)