Ulysses in America

On this day in 1934, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Judge Woolsey’s earlier ruling allowing James Joyce’s Ulysses into America. This enabled Random House to issue the first U.S. edition, over a decade after Sylvia Beach’s original Paris edition, and after a decade of American tourists had been nervously returning from Europe with their banned copies. As told by Random House editor Bennett Cerf (At Random, 1977), the success of the original court case hinged entirely, and humorously, upon these smuggled editions of the novel.

The Random House legal strategy involved delicate timing, as they wanted their challenge to the banning of the book brought to trial while the erudite and liberal-minded Judge Woolsey was in session in New York. It was equally important to somehow get into the court records the views of those famous literary figures — Edmund Wilson, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, et al. — who had written reviews proclaiming Ulysses to be a masterpiece. Under American law at the time, such outside criticism was not allowed in court; only material actually included within the disputed book could be used as evidence. The Random solution was to take a copy of Beach’s edition, paste the supporting reviews into it, have someone take it over to Europe and then be caught smuggling it back. The appointed day for this criminality turned out to be one of the hottest in the history of New York, making the crime more difficult than expected:

The temperature on that dock must have been a hundred and twenty degrees, and the customs people wanted only one thing: to get returning passengers off and get the hell out themselves. They were stamping everything without opening it, saying, “Get out; go on out.” When our man arrived, the customs inspector started to stamp his suitcase without even looking at it. Our agent, frantic, said, “I insist that you open that bag and search it.” The inspector looked at him as though he were an absolute lunatic, and said, “It’s too hot.”

“I think there’s something in there that’s contraband,” our agent said, “and I insist that it be searched.”

So, furiously, the fellow had to open the suitcase. And the agent said, “Aha!” as he produced our copy of Ulysses. The customs man said, “Oh, for God’s sake, everybody brings that in. We don’t pay attention to it.” But the agent persisted, “I demand that you seize this book.”

The inspector called his boss, the boss balked, the agent persisted, and the book, later much dog-eared and underlined by a district attorney looking for pornography, was eventually donated to the Columbia University Library.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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