Libido: Naked Brunch: Un-Banning Books
Preserving America’s Erotic Heritage

How the courts of the United States came to extend
First Amendment guarantees to include pornography.

Part 3
The Little Review and James Joyce’s Ulysses

By Jack Hafferkamp

John Sumner, 1937

At the death of Anthony Comstock in 1915, John Sumner took over as the nation’s chief censor. Sumner was not the towering figure Comstock was, but neither was he without influence. One of his earliest "successes" was in prosecuting Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, two feminists who ran the Washington Square Bookstore in Greenwich Village where they published The Little Review.

The two women were so far ahead of their times that, today, they seem completely contemporary. A writer, Anderson started The Little Review in 1914 in Chicago as an avant garde literary journal that tackled whatever interested her: feminism, Emma Goldman, dadaism and on. She was also drawn to the "experimentalism" of a novel by a young Irish writer named James Joyce.

James Joyce

The novel, of course, was Ulysses, which has recently been chosen as the most important novel in the English language. The Little Review began publishing excerpts of Ulysses in 1918. In 1920, at about half-way through the novel, Anderson and Heap were brought to trial for publishing in their July/August issue the episode culminating in Leopold Bloom’s orgasm while looking up a young woman’s skirt as she leans back to look at a fireworks display.

Ulysses is not a casual read. Joyce’s novel is constructed as a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. All the action takes place on a single day, June 16, 1904 in Dublin, Ireland. Probably the most challenging aspect for first-time readers is Joyce’s use of complex stream-of-consciousness interior monologues. That is, Joyce writes from inside his characters heads. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of the book is one famous example. So is the "Nausicaa" section, which caused so much trouble for The Little Review.

At last they were left alone without the others to pry and pass remarks and she knew he could be trusted to the death, steadfast, a man of honour to his fingertips. She leaned back far to look up where the fireworks were and she caught her knee in her hands so as not to fall back looking up and there was no one to see only him and her when she revealed all her graceful beautifully shaped legs like that, supply soft and delicately rounded, and she seemed to hear the panting of his heart his hoarse breathing, because she knew about the passion of men like that, hotblooded, because Bertha Supple told her once in secret about the gentleman lodger that was staying with them out of the record office that had pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in the bed. But this was different from a thing like that because there was all the difference because she could almost feel him draw her face to his and the first quick hot touch of his handsome lips. Beside there was absolution so long as you didn’t do the other thing before being married and there ought to be women priests that would understand without telling out and Cissy Caffrey too sometimes had that dreamy kind of dreamy look in he eyes so that she too, my dear, and besides it was on account of that other thing coming on the way it did.

And Jacky Caffrey shouted to look, there was another and she leaned back and the garters were blue to match on account of the transparent and they all saw it and shouted to look, look there it was and she leaned back ever so far to see the fireworks and something queer was flying about through the air, a soft thing to and fro, dark. And she saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back that he could see high up above her knee where no-one ever and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight like those skirtdancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking. She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow, the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

Then all melted away dewily in the grey air: all was silent. Ah! she glanced at him as she bent forward quickly, a pathetic little glance of piteous protest, of shy reproach under which he coloured like a girl. He was leaning back against the rock behind. Leopold Bloom (for it is he) stands silent, with bowed head before those young guileless eyes. What a brute he had been! At it again? A fair unsullied soul had called to him, and wretch that he was, how had he answered? An utter cad had he been! He of all men! But there was an infinite store of mercy in those eyes, for him too a word of pardon even though he had erred and sinned and wandered. Should a girl tell? No, a thousand times no. That was their secret, only theirs, alone in the hiding twilight and there was none to know or tell save the little bat that flew so softly through the evening to and fro and little bats don’t tell. (Source: Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius by Edward de Grzia (Random House, 1992)

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap

Anderson and Heap were fined $100 each for publishing their excerpt and John Sumner had made his point. After the case was lost, James Joyce could not find a publisher in the U.S. or England who would touch Ulysses until 1931. In Europe, it was another woman who finally took the plunge. From her famous Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., Sylvia Beach put our an ediiton in1922.

When Ulysses finally was published in the U.S. in 1932 by Random House, it was still risky for the publisher. According to First Amendment attorney and author Edward de Grazia, who goes over this case in great detail in his highly recommended book Girls Lean Back Everywhere, to get the rights Random House had not only to offer more money than other potential publishers, it had to conspire to arrange a favorable court hearing of its case.

The plan of Random House’s young boss, Bennet Cerf, was to go to federal court to have the book declared not obscene. He arranged to have a copy of the Sylvia Beach publication confiscated by customs. Then to better their odds, Cerf and his attorney timed the proceedings to to come up when a "liberal" federal judge, John M. Woolsey, was sitting.

It worked. Woolsey ruled in 1933 that the work as a whole had literary merit but would not arouse the average person, and thus should not be held as obscene. De Grazia puts the Ulysses decision in this context:

In the Ulysses case Judge John M. Woolsey, fashioned a new legal rule to replace Hicklin. Woolsey took the position that the freedom to publish Ulysses should not be judged by any tendency the novel might have to corrupt the morals of young girls, but rather by its effect on the judge himself -- and two friends, whom he privately consulted. When all three gentlemen…found that reading Ulysses failed to arouse them sexually, Joyce’s masterpiece was set free.

A 1932 caricature of John Sumner titled John S. Smutrat: Vicesnoopia Fitheata.

Ulysses, however, was not a complete victory for the freedom to read, because it simply said that this book was not obscene even though it had some sexy parts. The Ulysses Standard for judging obscenity still held that obscene literature could be banned. It took another quarter century for works such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, or even Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre, or Edmund Wilson’s Memories of Hecate County to be cleared by the courts.

Copyright 1996
All rights reserved

For information on reprinting this series for classroom use, please contact us at, or phone 800-495-1988

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: From Benjamin Hicklin to Margaret Sanger
Part 3: The Little Review and James Joyce's Ulysses
Part 4: Samuel Roth to Henry Miller
Part 5: The "Brennan Doctrine"