Emetic, Not Aphrodisiac: The Misguided Censorship of James Joyce’s Ulysses

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Filed under Library News:  Archives & Research Collections Innis Mills Thode

Seventy years after the death of James Joyce in 1941, it’s appropriate that Ulysses, his literary masterpiece, should be chosen as the notable book during Freedom to Read Week.

Divided into 18 "episodes" with Homeric nomenclature and parallels, Ulysses narrates the events, lives, and inner thoughts of various fictional characters (Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom, etc.) in Dublin on June 16, 1904. Now known as "Bloomsday," that day is annually celebrated not only in Ireland but throughout the world with readings and cultural festivities. Infused with puns, parodies, coarse language, and sexual imagery, Ulysses has a complex publishing history. Textual scholars such as Hans Walter Gabler and John Kidd have engaged in what has been termed "The Joyce Wars" and are bitterly divided as to what constitutes the "definitive" edition of Ulysses. Joyce confessed that he had placed "so many enigmas and puzzles [into Ulysses] that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." The novel has also been subject to prosecution and banned in a number of English-speaking countries of the Commonwealth: England (banned from 1923 to 1936), Australia (banned from 1929 to 1937 and again from 1941 to 1953), and Canada (banned from 1923 until 1949).

Written and revised continuously over a seven-year period from 1914 to 1921, Ulysses was serialized in the American literary journal the Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920. Serialization ceased when the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice took legal action against the magazine and Margaret Anderson, the magazine’s owner, was fined $100 and even finger printed. "This decision established us as criminals," Anderson remarked in disgust. As a result of his legal difficulties in the United States and England, Joyce arranged for the publication of his book in February 1922 with Shakespeare and Company, the imprint of Sylvia Beach’s English-language bookstore in Paris. Joyce heavily corrected and revised the proofs. Nonetheless, it is estimated that the first edition of Joyce’s novel contains at least 2,000 typographical errors. In July 1930 Beach reported that the novel had been reprinted 11 times and had sold 28,000 copies.

Other editions of Ulysses, even a piracy in the United States, were published during this early period. 400-500 imported copies of an edition published by John Rodker in Paris were confiscated and burned by the America post office, for example. Matters came to a head in the United States when the American publisher Random House contested the censorship of Ulysses. In December 1933 Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene: "[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic [i.e. vomit-producing], nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac." The most recent attempt to censor Ulysses occurred in 2010 when Apple for iPad use objected to the cartoon nudity in Rob Berry and Josh Levitas’s Ulysses Seen, a webcomic of the novel. Apple quickly re-considered and reversed its decision to the delight of Bloomsday aficionados.

McMaster University Library houses many editions of Ulysses and related works of Joyce, including copy no. 332 of the first edition published by Shakespeare and Company.  The first edition-a fragile book with bright turquoise wrappers and handmade paper-can be consulted and examined in the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at Mills Memorial Library.

by Carl Spadoni