Ulysses: “We were the first to publish this masterpiece and the first to be arrested for it”

In the spring of 1918, a small avant-garde magazine in Chicago called The Little Review began publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses, one episode at a time. Once in 1919, then twice in 1920, issues of the magazine with Ulysses episodes were seized by the US Post Office and burned.


In October of 1920 the owners of The Little Review, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, were brought to trial for publishing obscenity.


The episode that put them over the top is known as “Nausicaa,” in which a young girl allows the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, to see her uncovered legs during a fireworks show.


…and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back that he could see high up above her knee where no-one ever and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that…


At this time, the determination on what could be called obscene was whether the work had the tendency to “corrupt” the young. Not kidding. (This didn’t begin to change until, actually, a later trial of Ulysses in 1933.)


Heap’s opinion was rather different. Her reply is striking:


Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings; wear low-cut sleeveless blouses, breathless bathing suits; men think thoughts and have emotions about things everywhere—seldom as delicately and imaginatively as Mr. Bloom—and no one is corrupted.


Heap and Anderson lost the suit. Their defense lawyer put up a painfully bad defense (“I myself do not understand Ulysses; I think Joyce has carried his method too far”), and there was little support in the literary community. Ulysses was abandoned, only about half of it published.

When Joyce heard the news in Paris, it was a blow. He wondered how he would ever get the whole book published now. Sympathetic, ex-pat Sylvia Beach offered to print it at her bookstore Shakespeare and Company. The rest is history: the book came out in 1922 in an edition of 1000 copies, bound in Aegean Blue wrappers.


Joyce was lucky to have Sylvia Beach: after the trial of Heap and Anderson no other publisher was willing to touch it until 1933, more than ten years later. Even before Heap and Anderson picked up the book, publishers knew better than to step in that hornet’s nest. So why did Heap and Anderson take the risk with their fledgling magazine?


When Ezra Pound brought them the manuscript with an eye towards possible publication, this is how Anderson reacted:


This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have to publish. Let us print it if it’s the last effort of our lives!


After the trial, Anderson said:


James Joyce has never written anything, and will never be able to write anything, that is not beautiful.


Readers, do you agree? Do you find Joyce’s writing beautiful? Or obscene? Or do you just not get it?


(Note: All these quotes were taken from the book Girls Lean Back Everywhere by Edward de Grazia, which I highly recommend if you are interested in the history of censorship of 20th century literature in America.)


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Justin says:

    Beautiful is not the word. Pleasantly raw.

    Not obscene.

    I get it with effort.

    1. I like that description, though I’m still tempted to label it “beautiful” in addition.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Isn’t it something how much attitudes towards “obscenity” have changed over the years?

    I’m very interested in finding a copy of Girls Lean Back Everywhere. I hadn’t heard of that book before.

    1. You’ll love Girls Lean Back Everywhere if this subject interests you. It traces the amazing changes in the law of obscenity through the 20th century.

  3. Every writer has a rhythm. That rhythm grows from words. Shall we march or skip? Drift or jump. The rhythm exists independent of content and involves not just the beat but the sound of the words chosen by the writer.

    As readers, I suspect each of us are predisposed to enjoy certain rhythms while we struggle with others. Jame Joyce creates a rhythm, a flow in me, that takes my breath away. Put simply, I like the way he makes my mouth move.

    There are others out there, top notch, highly respected, even award winning authors, writing about things I know, things I like, getting those things ‘right’ in my mind, that I can barely plow through. Their rhythms simply do not match up with mine. They are not to blame, nor am I. It’s just the way it is. Same with folks who struggle with Joyce… Their rhythms just don’t mesh.

    As to the questions of obscenity, it has been my experience that when accusations of obscenity are made, I learn far more about the accuser’s state of mind and obsessions than perhaps they hoped to reveal…

    1. Joe, I love your thoughts on this! It’s true that sometimes a great work just doesn’t mesh with a reader. Beauty is subjective. Like Heap and Anderson, though, I believe that beauty should be published in celebrated, even if it’s not as beautiful to others.

      1. Agree 100%. And I’ll note that one (of many) dangers I see in the consolidation/merging of publishers and the ‘Amazonification’ of the world is the creation of a monoculture where works that stray from the widely accepted model of ‘beauty’ get marginalized (at best) or go completely unpublished. Here’s hoping there will always be Jane Heaps, Margaret Andersons and Sylvia Beachs out there to draw our attention to that which we would otherwise miss.

        1. I have the hope that with the digitalization of books there will be more opportunities for “indie” publications, as a writer won’t always have to jump through as many hoops to get his/her work out there.

          (And I meant “published and celebrated” before…)

  4. John robinson says:

    In hindsight, its obscene, irrelevant and a waste of trees. It has no redeeming qualities and its a shame that any survived.

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