Thursday, August 7, 2008


"It was on this day in 1934 that the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that James Joyce's novel Ulysses was not obscene and could be admitted into the United States." --The Writer's Almanac

Lucky me. My copy of Ulysses begins with the opinion from the U.S. District Court, rendered December 6, 1933. While not a marvel of "plain English for lawyers" (and occasionally an example of why that movement now has many followers), Judge Woolsey's opinion gets right to the heart of the matter when necessary:

[I]t must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic,--that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity. . . . But in "Ulysses", in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe. In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.

Judge Woolsey goes on to state that obscenity is determined by whether a particular book would incite sexual impulses and thoughts in the person with average sex instincts. He likens this person to the "reasonable man" of tort law and the "man learned in the art" of patent law. Who knew there was a "sexually reasonable man" standard?

During his inquiry, the judge read several times the particular passages that the U.S. government considered objectionable, and he read the entire work. He also asked two friends (astute readers and "sexually reasonable men") to read it and give him their opinions. All three of them agreed the book was "a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women" but "nowhere [did] it tend to be an aphrodesiac."

If you ask me, you probably aren't going to get a better or more succinct review than that. God bless you, Judge Woolsey, wherever you are.

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