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.)