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United States v. One Book Called Ulysses

United States v. One Book Called Ulysses was a 1933 case in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dealing with free speech. At issue was whether James Joyce's novel Ulysses was obscene. In deciding it was not, Judge John M. Woolsey opened the door to importation and publication of serious works of literature, even when they used coarse language or involved sexual subjects. The decision was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, but it is Judge Woolsey's trial court opinion which is now often cited as an erudite and discerning affirmation of literary free speech.


In 1922 James Joyce published his most famous novel Ulysses. Prior to its publication as a book, it was serialized in The Little Review, a literary magazine. There was a masturbation scene in the Nausicäa episode which was published. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice objected and took action; at a trial in 1921 the magazine was declared obscene. Random House decided to try to get the ban lifted so as to publish the book in the United States, and therefore sought to instigate a test case. In 1933, an arrangement was made to import the French edition and to have a copy seized by customs when the ship carrying work the was unloaded.

Trial court ruling

The seizure of the work was contested in the United States District Court in New York City. The United States, acting as libelant, asserted that the work was obscene, therefore not importable, and subject to confiscation and destruction. Random House, as claimant, argued that the book was not obscene and was protected by the First Amendment, and sought a decree dismissing the action. There was no trial as such; instead the parties stipulated to the facts and made motions for the relief each sought.

Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not pornographic-- that nowhere in it was the "leer of the sensualist". Acknowledging the "astonishing success" of Joyce's use of the "stream of consciousness" technique, the judge stated that the novel was serious and that its author was sincere and honest in showing how the minds of his characters operate and what they were thinking. Some of their thoughts, the judge said, were expressed in "old Saxon words" familiar to readers, and:

"[i]n respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of [Joyce's] characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring."
To have failed to honestly tell fully what his characters thought would have been "artistically inexcusable", said the judge.

Having disposed of the question of whether the book was written with pornographic intent, Judge Woolsy turned to the question of whether the work nevertheless was objectively obscene within the meaning of the law. That meaning, as set forth in a string of cases cited by the judge, was whether the work "tend[ed] to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts". The judge found that the book when read in its entirety did not do so:

"[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."

Consequently Ulysses was not obscene, and could be admitted into the United States.

Within ten minutes of hearing of the decision, Bennett Cerf of Random House instructed the typesetters to start work on the book. One hundred copies were published in January 1934 to obtain U.S. copyright. This was the first legal publication of the work in any English-speaking nation.

The news of the decision was cabled to Joyce in Paris. Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s biographer, stated that judge’s eloquent and emphatic decision allowed the author to achieve his ambition of obtaining a "famous verdict". Joyce commented triumphantly that “one half of the English speaking world surrenders; the other half will follow”, a gentler version of his prior sardonic prediction that while England would follow suit within a few years after the U.S. stopped censoring the work, Ireland would not follow suit until “1000 years hence".


Judge Woolsey's decision was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The three-judge panel affirmed Woolsey's ruling by a two-to-one vote in United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce. The panel majority consisted of Judges Learned Hand and Augustus N. Hand, with Chief Judge Martin Manton dissenting.

Judges Learned Hand and Augustus Hand, believing that the case was receiving undue publicity and attention, "agreed that the opinion affirming Woolsey's ruling should, if at all possible, contain 'not a single quotable line.' The decision was therefore drafted by Augustus Hand rather than his cousin Learned Hand, whose writing was far more memorable.

Augustus Hand's opinion displayed a historical perspective of the harm of overzealous censorship:

"Art certainly cannot advance under compulsion to traditional forms, and nothing in such a field is more stifling to progress than limitation of the right to experiment with a new technique. The foolish judgments of Lord Eldon about one hundred years ago, proscribing the works of Byron and Southey, and the finding by the jury under a charge by Lord Denman that the publication of Shelley's "Queen Mab" was an indictable offense are a warning to all who have to determine the limits of the field within which authors may exercise themselves. We think that Ulysses is a book of originality and sincerity of treatment and that it has not the effect of promoting lust. Accordingly it does not fall within the statute, even though it justly may offend many.

The opinion also was significant in its urging that any test of obscenity could not rely on mere isolated passages but instead had to consider the work as a whole, a test used by Judge Woolsey and which the Supreme Court later endorsed.


This was a notable change in the rulings of the courts of the United States toward obscenity. Before it was universally agreed that laws prohibiting obscenity were not in conflict with the First Amendment.

The significance of the ruling goes beyond its immediate and ultimate precedential effect. While the Second Circuit's decision set the precedent, Judge Woosley's trial court opinion has been reproduced in all Random House printings of the novel, and that opinion has been recognized as a perceptive analysis of Joyce's work. Richard Ellmann stated that Judge Woolsey’s decision "said much more than it had to", and another Joyce biographer and critic, Harry Levin, called the decision a "distinguished critical essay". The opinion discusses some of the same characteristics which Joyce scholars have discerned in the work.

Judge Woolsey mentioned the "emetic" effect of some of the passages alleged to be obscene; Stuart Gilbert, Joyce’s friend and author of an early critical study of the novel, stated that those passages "are, in fact, cathartic and calculated to allay rather than to excite the sexual instincts". And Harry Levin therefore noted that the judge described the book’s "effect in terms of catharsis, the purge of the emotion through pity and terror" that is ascribed to tragedy, a theme which Levin found in prior works of Joyce.

The judge had also stated that portrayal of the coarser inner thoughts of the characters was necessary to show how their minds operate, a judgment that treats those characters as not mere fictional creations, but as authentic personalities. Gilbert states that the "personages of Ulysses’ are not fictitious", but that "these people are as they must be; they act, we see, according to some lex eterna, an ineluctable condition of their very existence". Through these characters Joyce "achieves a coherent and integral interpretation of life", or in the words of Judge Woolsey, a "true picture" of lower-middle class life drawn by a "real artist in words" who has devised a "new literary method for the observation and description of mankind".




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  • Ulysses Lands. Time. Retrieved on 2008-03-22.. Time Magazine cover story on Ulysses' publication in the United States, trial court decision, and James Joyce.

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