Judge John Woolsey and Ulysses

  • Judge John M. Woolsey, circa 1920s. Contributed photo

Published: 9/20/2020 2:26:53 PM
Modified: 9/20/2020 2:26:51 PM

We have all heard of banned books. This column is about a banned book, “Ulysses,” by James Joyce, and a summertime Petersham resident, Judge John M. Woolsey, who ensured the book was published for those who wanted to read it.

According to grandson John Woolsey III, a Petersham resident, “My grandfather came to Petersham because he married my grandmother, who lived here. He was living and working in New York City at the time. Family legend has it my grandmother made him promise as a condition of marriage that they would come to Petersham every summer. He kept the promise,” said John Woolsey III. “So it was that he took Ulysses with him when he went up to Petersham from New York City for his summer vacation in 1933. He spent the late summer and early fall reading the book in Petersham, trying to understand it and prepare for the court hearing. He later admitted that he found the book difficult and rather dull.”

“Ulysses” was first published in its entirety in 1922 in Paris, although parts of it had been serialized before then. The book tells the story of the life of a man, Leopold Bloom, living in Dublin, Ireland, during the day of June 16, 1904, a day that is still observed every year by Joyce fans as “Bloomsday.” Joyce wanted to write about everyday life in a different way than had been customary. He did this vividly, using new techniques of description, and he included in his narrative Bloom’s and his other characters’ thoughts about sex, although the sections about sex are scattered around, often vague and definitely not the main subject of the book, Still, this aspect of his story immediately provoked controversy and his book was banned or restricted in all English-speaking countries, said Woolsey III.

In the U.S., the 1873 Comstock Act prohibited the circulation of “obscene” material in the U.S. Mail. When one of the novel’s chapters involving sex was serialized in an American magazine in 1921, the publisher was prosecuted under the Comstock Act. The Tariff Act prohibited the books’ importation across the border. Copies were seized and burned. Penalties included heavy fines and sometimes imprisonment. Still, copies were constantly being smuggled in.

Despite the controversy, Woolsey III said, it was widely praised by readers and literary critics everywhere as a great, path-breaking work of literary art. “Furthermore, they were irritated that government officials and other ‘guardians of public morals’ were deciding what they were (and were not) allowed to read, ” he continued.

In New York City, a lawyer named Morris Ernst took up the cause of the book and set about trying to bring a case for the publication of the book. First, though, Ernst had to get the book legally admitted into the United States, which wasn’t easy; other publishers had tried to get the novel past the legal obstacles and failed.

At the same time, Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, also wanted to pursue the publication of Ulysses. Random House then was only six years old and Cerf was convinced that if his company could publish Ulysses, its quality and notoriety would drive sales for Random House.

Ernst devised a clever strategy, as Kevin Birmingham explains in his 2014 book, “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.” Instead of printing a large number of copies and trying to import them in bulk, or individually through the mail, he would instead have one copy shipped from France as he knew the book was on a list of contraband items not permitted to be brought into the country, Woolsey III stated. If the book was discovered by customs, they were supposed to confiscate it immediately, which meant the legal case could move forward.

In May 1932, the SS Bremen docked in New York with the parcel, mailed from France. However, customs officials swamped with disembarking passengers and cargo did not inspect the package and it was delivered to Random House unopened, Woolsey said.

Ernst grabbed the parcel, and marching back to the Customs office, insisting it be searched. The inspector was bewildered with the request but opened it. Ernst explained the book was contraband and must be seized. The inspector waved him off, Woolsey III said, stating “Oh, for God’s sake, everybody brings that in. We don’t pay attention to it.” Ernst yelled back: “I demand that you seize this book!” After a supervisor was called over, the book was finally “seized” and the federal case began.

After a bit of maneuvering, Woolsey III continued, Ernst was able to get the “Ulysses” case assigned to Judge John M. Woolsey, who was appointed in 1929 as a Federal District Judge for the Southern District of New York by President Hoover. The Judge had already decided several cases dealing with free speech issues, so Ernst was hopeful Woolsey would rule in favor of this book.

The United States of America v. One Book Called “Ulysses” was heard on Saturday, Nov. 25, 1933 in a New York City courtroom without a jury; only the judge, the lawyers and a large audience were present. Woolsey handed down his decision on Dec. 6, 1933, admitting the book into the country, explaining that he thought that Joyce had done very successfully what he set out to do, which was to reveal the everyday thoughts and actions of several Dubliners. The parts about sex were beside the point; they were not the purpose of the book nor did they overwhelm it, Woolsey stated. The government appealed the decision but it was affirmed by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which ended the legal battle over the book. Random House printed 10,000 copies within two months.

The text of the decision was for a long time bound into copies of Ulysses as introductory material at the insistence of Cerf, who took a financial risk in bringing this case, Woolsey III said. To forestall anyone else in the U.S. from bringing an obscenity case against the book, he made sure that they could not possibly avoid seeing the favorable decision bound into the book itself. Today, “Ulysses” is said to be one of the most widely circulated judicial decisions in history.


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