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United States v. One Book Called Ulysses - Significance

obscenity joyce american customs

Judge John Woolsey's decision in the Ulysses case marked a notable change in the policies of the courts and legislative bodies of the United States toward obscenity. Before this decision, it was universally agreed that a) laws prohibiting obscenity were not in conflict with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and b) the U.S. Post Office and the U.S. Customs Service held the power to determine obscenity. Ulysses became the major turning point in reducing government prohibition of obscenity.

Friends of James Joyce had warned him that Ulysses would run into trouble with American postal and customs officials. As early as 1919 and 1920, when the Little Review serialized some of the book, the U.S. Post Office confiscated three issues of the magazine and burned them. The publishers were convicted of publishing obscene material, fined $50 each, and nearly sent to prison.

After that decision, several American and British publishers backed off from considering publishing the book in its entirety. Joyce, visiting his friend Sylvia Beach's Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, despaired of finding a publisher. Beach then asked if Shakespeare and Company might "have the honor" of bringing out the book. Thus Ulysses was first published in 1922 in Paris and instantly became an object of smuggling pride and a valuable collector's item when successfully transported past British and American customs agents. By 1928, the U.S. Customs Court officially listed Ulysses among obscene books to be kept from the hands and eyes of American readers.

Meantime, such literary figures as T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Ezra Pound had acclaimed the Joyce work as already a classic. In Paris, Bennett Cerf, who with Donald S. Klopfer had successfully put the Random House publishing firm on its feet by establishing the Modern Library, told Joyce he would publish the book if its publication could be legalized.

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