Ulysses (novel)

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Date: 1918, 1922

Region: North America, Europe

Subject: Explicit Sexuality

Medium: Literature

Artist: James Joyce

Confronting Bodies: U.S. Government

Dates of Action: 1918, 1922

Location: United States, United Kingdom

Description of Artwork: Ulysses is an 18 chapter book in which each chapter represents about one hour in the course of a day and reflects a chapter in the Odyssey. The story follows an ordinary day in Dublin and touches upon obscene points such as urination and masturbation. Due to each part being written in a different style and having different themes associated with it, the story seems very disjointed. This is why court cases against the book were limited to certain chapters, making it difficult for lawyers to defend the obscenities by linking them to the story as a whole.

The Incident: Before the story was even published, it had been censored of numerous sexual and excretion references by the New York "Little Review," a magazine who was to release it in serial publications. However, in 1920, on three separate occasions, the US Post Office intercepted the magazines and had them burned (At the time they had the right to halt any indecent materials). In particular, the episode "Nausicaa" caused a stir through its heavy, although comic, focus on masturbation. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found out about this and brought the owners of the magazine to court, where they were forced to stop printing episodes of Ulysses. The trial scared off any potential publishers and printers who saw it as filth, but eventually Joyce had the book released in France. However, Joyce still found resistance to it in English speaking countries.

British customs officials also confiscated it and had it sent to the Home Office for examining. In 1922, the Director of Public Prosecution deemed it indecent and ordered that customs not let the book get through to Britain. He made this decision having read only 40 pages.

Results of Incident: Not until 1933 was the ban challenged. US publisher Random House brought the book before a judge who, upon reading the sexual passages, declared, "nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States." This decision, made based on effects that the writing has on the average reader, became the new standard by which obscenity was judged in America.

Source: National Association of Artists Organizations