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.