Legal notes prepared for United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses, 1934


Prior to 1934 James Joyce’s novel Ulysses was effectively outlawed in North America. In 1920 a prosecution for obscenity was brought against The Little Review, the American journal that serialised Ulysses from 1918 to 1920, and in October 1922 the second London edition was seized and destroyed by the United States Postal Services. Critics focussed on specific individual episodes such as ‘Nausicaa’, with its depiction of masturbation and sexual desire.

This legal document details the court case surrounding the novel, known as United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses. In 1933 Random House and lawyer Morris Ernst arranged to import a French edition of Ulysses by ship to the United States, intending for it to be seized by customs – which therefore created an opportunity to dispute the claim of obscenity in court. This document was produced as Random House’s ‘brief’ for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld U.S. District Judge John M Woolsey’s 1933 ruling that Ulysses ‘is not obscene and therefore entitled to enter the United States’ (p. 1). This was a landmark victory against censorship, and Ulysses was subsequently published by Random House in 1934.

What approach did Random House take?

The brief sets out a rigorous defence of Joyce and Ulysses. It provides a biography, contextualising Joyce’s standing within literature, naming him ‘the most important figure in world literature today’ (p. 3) who has profoundly influenced the modern novel. He is compared to literary greats: ‘Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, and Balzac the Comédie Humaine. It remained for Joyce to write the Comédie Intellectuelle’ (p. 6). This emphasis on Joyce’s ‘literariness’ is crucial for the basis of the claim, which sought to prove that Ulysses was a work of literature, not pornography.

To bolster their credibility, Random House gathered hundreds of quotes and testimonials from ‘distinguished’ writers, critics and librarians (see the appendices). Today, these quotes provide a fascinating insight into public opinions towards one of the greatest and most controversial novels of the 20th century.

Full title:
United States Circuit Court of Appeals ... United States of America, libellant-appellant, against one book entitled Ulysses by James Joyce. Random House, Inc., claimant-appellee. Brief for claimant-appellee.
1934, New York, US
October 1936
Legal document
United States Circuit Court of Appeals
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

Related articles

An introduction to Ulysses

Article by:
Katherine Mullin
Literature 1900–1950, Capturing and creating the modern

Since its publication in 1922, readers have been daunted, dazzled and puzzled by Ulysses. Katherine Mullin introduces James Joyce's novel, exploring both its commitment to modernist experimentation and to the portrayal of everyday life.

Ulysses and obscenity

Article by:
David Bradshaw
Literature 1900–1950

The writing and publication history of Ulysses was shaped by individuals and organisations trying to censor it, outraged by its explicit references to the human body and its iconoclasm. David Bradshaw describes the reactions to James Joyce's novel on both sides of the Atlantic, from its initial magazine serialisation in 1919 to the 1950s.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works


Created by: James Joyce

Ulysses, a novel by the Irish writer James Joyce, is a key text of literary modernism. Divided into 18 chapters, it ...