As admirers of the Irish author celebrate Bloomsday, it’s worth remembering that Ulysses’ scandalous passages inspired legal challenges and outright bans, writes Kevin Birmingham.

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the editors of a Greenwich Village magazine called The Little Review, appeared before three judges in a crowded Manhattan courtroom in 1921. They were facing up to a year in prison for violating New York’s anti-obscenity law when they printed an excerpt from James Joyce’s forthcoming novel Ulysses. In the ‘Nausicaa’ episode which had appeared in the magazine, a young woman named Gerty MacDowell sees Leopold Bloom watching her as she sits on a beachside rock. As fireworks explode in the distance, she leans further and further back to reveal her undergarments while Leopold, our hero, masturbates.

No one at the trial realised this last part, thanks to Ezra Pound’s unauthorised cuts and Joyce’s experimental style. One judge grumbled, “it sounds to me like the ravings of a disordered mind – I can’t see why anyone would want to publish it.” Another judge insisted that the “Greenwich Girl Editors”, as the press called them, published the episode only because they couldn’t understand it. The judges declared the excerpt obscene, and while Anderson and Heap escaped with a fine, the ruling effectively meant that Ulysses would be illegal in New York (and probably the rest of the US) before Joyce could finish writing it.

British authorities weren’t far behind. Sylvia Beach published Ulysses in Paris in 1922, and when a copy seized at a London airport made its way to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Archibald Bodkin, he declared Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – the only episode he bothered to read – a production of “unmitigated filth and obscenity”. Hundreds of copies of Ulysses were seized and burned as they landed in the UK and the US.

Since the late 19th Century, censors considered themselves the guardians of civic order in an emerging Information Age. Rising literacy rates and plunging book prices created a new mass market, and authorities became skittish about the power of books once larger swaths of the population began to read them. Literacy was a dangerous tool in the hands of anyone who might use it for unsanctioned purposes. This is why Britain and the US defined obscenity as material with a “tendency... to deprave and corrupt” anyone “whose minds are open to such immoral influences” – implicitly, children and adolescents, women, immigrants and the poor (the high retail price of Ulysses was an argument in its favour). One scandalous scene was enough to ban the entire book. Literary complexity and value were irrelevant because they presumably didn’t matter to those readers. The difficulty of Ulysses, in fact, vindicated the logic of censorship: the novel’s obscurities only increased the chances that unsophisticated readers would seize upon isolated, corrupting passages.

In 1925, British officials discovered that a young Cambridge University lecturer was planning to teach Ulysses to “boy and girl undergraduates”, according to a Home Office file. Either the plan was a “hoax”, officials concluded, or the lecturer “must be a dangerous crank”. The crank was FR Leavis, who would become one of Britain’s preeminent literary critics. Following Home Office orders, the Cambridge police spied on Leavis’s rooms and warned booksellers not to sell Joyce’s novel. Sir Archibald threatened “prompt criminal proceedings” against the university and demanded that all Ulysses-related lectures be cancelled. And so they were. But the fears persisted. In 1931, the BBC prohibited a radio programme from even mentioning the title of Joyce’s novel on the air.

Censors and sensibilities

The reaction seems excessive until we remember how radical Ulysses was. It took nine years and eight rejections before Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories, was published in 1914. Among the objections was his indecent use of the word “bloody” (as in “she did not wish to seem bloody-minded”). A few years later, Joyce has Molly Bloom reveling in the memory of an afternoon tryst.  It was bad enough, morally speaking, that she isn’t punished for her infidelity. What’s worse is that Leopold, her husband, tacitly condones it. Worst of all is Molly’s unabashed pleasure: “O Lord I wanted to shout out all sorts of things” – namely obscenities that even today the BBC’s editorial guidelines on strong language do not deem fit to publish.

Molly isn’t the only person to indulge. An elaborate phantasmagoria in a Dublin brothel involves Bloom transforming into a woman (he gives birth to octuplets) before the brothel madam, Bella Cohen, turns into a man and auctions off Bloom’s services and, to demonstrate his/her virtues, plunges his arm “in Bloom’s vulva” before thrusting it into a bidder’s face. (Talk about bloody-minded.) After reading passages like this, the American publisher Horace Liveright reluctantly accepted the fact that he’d “go to jail in a hurry” if he published Joyce’s bizarre novel.

The readers who most needed protection from Ulysses were the new generation of young women – the “girl undergraduates” and “Greenwich Girl Editors” who were presumably in danger of taking Gerty, Bella and Molly (the novel’s most “obscene” characters) as libidinal mentors. It’s telling that the criminal charges against the Little Review editors began when a businessman complained to officials that the magazine was mailed to his teenage daughter.

Censors assumed that characters like Gerty MacDowell would lead women down a path of ever-expanding permission ending in broken families and a ruined nation. In 1921, John Sumner, the head of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the man who led the Little Review prosecution, argued that “radical feminists” were “writing insidious and widely read books on the freedom of the modern woman, and advocating still greater sex freedom” – contraception, perhaps, or information about contraception, both of which were illegal.

Culture and anarchy

The real danger of Ulysses wasn’t sex. It was how easily its sexual ‘corruptions’ became social and political ones. Exploring sexual pleasure outside marriage could lead to questions about the wisdom of marriage and monogamy itself, which opened the door to questioning all unexamined pieties, including nationalism, capitalism and religion. Reviewers saw Ulysses not just as obscene but as “literary Bolshevism” and “completely anarchic”. Joyce was “the man with the bomb who would blow what remains of Europe into the sky”. It didn’t help that he was Irish – a suspect population during and after World War I – or that the US government had declared The Little Review a publication with an “anarchistic tendency”. (Anderson and Heap openly supported the activist Emma Goldman.) Or that The Egoist, which serialised portions of Ulysses in the UK, was the brainchild of Dora Marsden, a suffragette repeatedly jailed for her aggressive protests. Or that Stephen Dedalus insists in Ulysses that he “must kill the priest and the king” inside his head. Or that one serialised episode (duly censored) likened Queen Victoria to a flatulent female dog.

Joyce’s aesthetics resembled his politics. When he began thinking of himself as an anarchist in 1907, it meant that he saw the world from the bottom-up, as an elaborate system governed by outcasts and throwaways rather than Gods and states. He privileged the particular over the universal, the illuminating detail – the epiphany – over abstraction and the individual over nations and collectives. Ulysses turns this granular vision into a modern epic. It draws the world out of dirty Dublin, humanity out of a handful ofpeople and large swaths of history out of one unremarkable day, 16 June 1904. Joyce enthusiasts love to celebrate that date as a holiday, but the point is that Bloomsday could be any day. If you ate a Gorgonzola sandwich today you were commemorating the power of the ordinary in Ulysses. Molly Bloom’s beautiful refrain of “Yes” is nothing if not a grandeur wrung out of smallness.

Molly’s recitation of “Yes” was perhaps the ultimate obscenity, for her expansive affirmation topples a negating impulse at the core of a certain type of conservatism. What motivates people like Sir Archibald Bodkin and John Sumner is not exactly a fear of change. It is their belief that society is a house of twigs in a storm, a belief that extends from our hopelessly corruptible human nature. This vision of fragility is gratifying because it turns the depraved city into evidence of God and His providence. How else could this house of twigs keep growing? But when depravity is so close at hand – when even a fictional account of infidelity and bodily functions, idle thoughts and transgender fantasies, is enough to corrupt our minds – the only thing one can do is censor them and hide people from who they would always be. No novel explodes that misanthropy more than Ulysses.

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