Times have changed. Culture and society evolves or devolves depending on your point of view, but if you truly believe in free speech-and not all Americans have, or still do-then thank Judge Woolsey for what he did in December of 1933.
“Ulysses,” the classic modernist novel by James Joyce was serialized in the American journal “Little Review” from 1918-1920. As a novel it was first published in Paris, 1922. But in America, two years earlier, a suit was brought against “Little Review” for a section of Ulysses deemed to be obscene. The section in question had to do with Leopold Bloom, the main character, masturbating in bed. I admit that I have not read the book as my reading level ends with The Hardy Boys, but some have argued that since the language used was so metaphorical, few would really know what Bloom was doing. Apparently the prudes of the day objected to either the fact that someone had the temerity to write of a detestable activity, or they were embarrassed to find their hobby being written about.
The end result was a court decision in 1921 to ban the novel “Ulysses” from being imported into the United States. Naturally when you ban something in America, like booze, everyone wants it, thus many entrepreneurs, called bookleggers, sold the book sub rosa to many people who may or may not have masturbated.
I recently read the court decision of Judge Woolsey in 1933 that lifted the ban of the book, allowing for legitimacy of the book. Readers were happy, as were publishers, that the case finally came to a climax.
What is interesting is what the judge wrote in his decision. His writing is part legalistic, such as, “. . .in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.” But he also wrote passages where he seemed to be a literary critic, such as, ” Joyce has attempted-it seems to me, with astonishing success-to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, is it were on a palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.” He should have written for the New York Times Literary Supplement in the Sunday edition.
I don’t know if Woolsey actually wrote the decision without any input from anyone else. Perhaps he called a literary professor, or perhaps Joyce himself, and asked, “Hey what’s up with this book. I don’t understand any of it, but I don’t think it a dirty book, so what can I say about it. I can use some help here.” This was his only other option as there were no Cliff’s Notes for the book.
Whether Judge John M. Woolsey wrote the decision of his own or with input, we should thank him for recognizing the book as a literary classic, not as a titillation that would make people go blind.