Culture and Recreation


Why was James Joyce’s Ulysses banned in the United States?

Irish writer James Joyce’s (1882–1941) masterpiece was originally published in 1922 (it had been serialized prior to then) by the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company. By 1928 it was officially listed as obscene by the U.S. Customs Court. The reason was twofold: the use of four-letter words and the stream-of-consciousness narrative of one of the characters, revealing her innermost thoughts. When the official stance on the book was challenged in U.S. court in 1933, the judge (John Woolsey) called it a “sincere and honest book,” and after long reflection he ruled that it be openly admitted into the United States. Random House, the American publisher who had advocated the obscenity charge be challenged in court, promptly began typesetting the work in order to release a U.S. edition. But the court decision had important and lasting legal impact as well: it was a turning point in reducing government censorship. Prior to the case, laws that prohibited obscenity were not seen to be in conflict with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which is most often interpreted as a guarantee of freedom of speech), and the U.S. Post Office and the Customs Service alike both had the power to determine obscenity. The government appealed the decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but Judge Woolsey’s decision held.


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