This year marks the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which was first excerpted in the Little Review in 1918. That may sound like a quaint milestone, far removed from our everyday lives, but in fact Joyce’s classic relates directly to current onslaughts on First Amendment rights.
President Trump’s effort to halt publication of “Fire and Fury,” the unflattering account of his presidency by Michael Wolff, failed at least partly because of legal precedents based on cases concerning “Ulysses.” A century ago, Joyce’s courageous refusal to change his text to accommodate American and English obscenity laws led to judicial decisions establishing that writers must be free to depict the world as they see it, and paved the way to the Supreme Court’s recognition that the First Amendment broadly protects speech critical of government officials.
The innovative prose of what was eventually recognized as the greatest English language novel of the 20th century immediately impressed Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of an American journal called the Little Review. Anderson, who believed that fine literature enabled readers to live their lives more deeply, told Heap, “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. . . . We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives.”
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice had a different reaction. It commenced an obscenity prosecution based on a scene in which the protagonist Leopold Bloom has an orgasm while watching Gerty MacDowell expose her knickers. The Society had every reason to be confident. The prevailing judicial decisions defined obscenity to include any writing, no matter how beautiful, that excited sexual desire.
The attorney defending the editors, John Quinn, depended on the favor of Irish American judges, politicians and businessmen, which made him reluctant to be perceived as a champion of “sex literature.” So instead, Quinn asserted that Joyce’s prose couldn’t corrupt anyone because it was unintelligible.
Not surprisingly, Anderson and Heap were convicted, and the serialization of “Ulysses” was halted. Publishers in New York and London urged Joyce to change his text to suit the censor, but he refused. “To consent would be an admission that the expurgated parts are not indispensable,” he wrote. “Either they are put in gratuitously without reference to my general purpose; or they are an integral part of my book. If they are mere interpolations, my book is inartistic; and if they are strictly in their place, they cannot be left out.”
It was exactly this principle that ultimately prevailed several years later, in 1933, when Random House founder Bennett Cerf published Joyce’s novel in New York. The presiding judge, John Woolsey, recognized that the beauty of Joyce’s style enabled the written word to convey the truth of human consciousness. Woolsey’s articulation of this insight broke new ground by deciding a legal question on the basis of an analysis of literary technique. He noted that Joyce was experimenting in a new genre in which the author attempted to show “the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions.”This approach, Woolsey wrote, required him to focus on Joyce’s veracity, what he called Joyce’s “honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.”
In other words, Woolsey understood — and had the courage to say — that Joyce was considered obscene only because “his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.”
Woolsey’s ruling was affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a 1934 opinion that overruled the old decisions holding that any writing that excited sexual desire was obscene. In 1957, in an unrelated obscenity case involving a publisher named Samuel Roth, the Supreme Court ruled that a test like that applied to “Ulysses” was constitutionally required because the First Amendment “was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.”
And that language from the Roth decision was the starting point for the Court’s reasoning seven years later in the New York Times v. Sullivan case, which established a strong protection from the kind of intimidation that President Trump recently attempted against Michael Wolff and his publisher, Henry Holt. The court ruled that a public official could recover damages for criticism of official conduct only if the official proved that the publisher knew the criticism was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
So, yes, yes, yes, as Molly Bloom would say: The anniversary of the publication of “Ulysses” is an occasion for renewed appreciation of free speech and the need for vigilance to protect it.
Joseph M. Hassett, an attorney at Hogan Lovells, is the author of “The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law.”
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