Ulysses is now considered to be one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century and a paragon of the Modernist style, but its initial publication in the United States was fraught with controversy.
The novel was originally published serially in the literary magazine The Little Review between 1918 and 1920. Groups of concerned citizens objected to the explicit sexual content of certain episodes in the text, and the courts determined that Ulysses was obscene and could therefore be banned under the terms of the Comstock Act. When the novel was published in its entirety in 1922 by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare Head Press in Paris, its importation into the United States was blocked, and 500 copies of the novel were destroyed by the U.S. Department of the Post Office.
In 1930, the U.S. Customs Department declared that Ulysses was obscene and its importation could be banned under the Tariff Act of 1930. The publisher Random House took that opportunity to request a court hearing, which was required by tariff law. In the resulting case, United States v. One Book Entitled “Ulysses,” Random House argued that the explicit language and imagery must be viewed in the context of the book as a whole.
Judge John M. Woolsey of the Federal Court of New York agreed, stating that the book was not pornographic in its overall effect. His decision was later upheld in the circuit court of appeals. The decision in the Ulysses trial set precedence for the obscenity standard to apply to entire works, rather than selected passages. Text by Melissa A. Hubbard, Assistant Professor, Morris Library Special Collections Research Center. Image of he first edition of Ulysses from Morris Library Special Collections Research Center.