Ulysses and obscenity

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.

Those inclined to snuffle out obscenity (‘smut-hounds’ as such prudes were called by contemporaries) had their snouts overwhelmed by James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). At the time of its first appearance, no effort was being spared by government agencies, publishing firms and self-appointed social purity watchdogs to sanitise books of all possible indelicacies, whereas Joyce’s heroically improper blockbuster set out to encompass life in all its aspects, both elevated and earthy, both printable and unspeakable. The novel’s no-holes-barred neologisms and often scurrilous wordplay – ‘The scrotumtightening sea’ (episode one: ‘Telemachus’); ‘wellpleased pleasers, curled conquistadores [i.e., penises]’ (episode three: ‘Proteus’); ‘sowc*nt’ (episode fifteen: ‘Circe’), for example – provided more than enough offence in their own right, while its bawdily irreverent treatment of the British royal family and its sacrilegious attitude to the Roman Catholic Church only enriched its consummate effrontery. As early as the fourth episode, ‘Calypso’, the reader goes to the toilet with Leopold Bloom, and this scrupulously detailed and whiffy deviation into what was then strictly off-limits fictional territory epitomises the pioneering boldness of Ulysses. It was (and remains) an audacious tour de force of trespass, and, between the wars, it was inevitably beset by obscenity prosecutions and many other acts of censure, not only in the UK and the USA, but throughout the anglophone world.

Ulysses by James Joyce, published by Shakespeare and Company

'Ulysses' by James Joyce, published by Shakespeare and Company

Front cover to the first book edition of Ulysses (1922).

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Prior to being published as a book, Joyce’s epic novel was partly serialised (between 1918 and 1920) in the Little Review, and, paradoxically, it was this Chicago magazine’s foreign editor, the outspoken modernist poet Ezra Pound, who was to be the text’s first censor. For example, Pound went to some lengths to sterilise Bloom’s visit to the lavatory, and elsewhere in ‘Calypso’ he ensured that the novel’s protagonist muses on ‘the grey sunken belly of the world’ rather than ‘the grey sunken c*nt of the world’. His main intention in substituting words and excising phrases was to protect Joyce’s masterpiece from the prudish eyes of American postal officials (though Pound may also have believed he could improve Joyce’s prose), but despite his interventions the novel’s serialisation still prompted many an outraged letter from the Little Reviews supposedly avant garde readers.

Instalment of Ulysses (episode XIII, Nausicaa) in The Little Review, April 1920

Instalment of Ulysses (episode XIII, Nausicaa) in The Little Review, April 1920

Between 1918 and 1920 Ulysses was partly serialised in Chicago-based avant garde journal, The Little Review.

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‘One of the ironies of Ulysses’, Kevin Birmingham has observed, is that:

while it was banned to protect the delicate sensibilities of female readers, the book owes its existence to several women. It was inspired, in part, by one woman [Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle], funded by another [Harriet Shaw Weaver], serialized by two more [Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, joint editors of the Little Review] and published by yet another [Sylvia Beach].[1]

But it was the response of a rather less sympathetic ‘female reader’ that was to spark the New York court case which resulted in the banning of Ulysses in America. The US Post Office had already refused to handle (or had actually confiscated) three numbers of the Little Review – the January 1919 issue (containing the first section of episode eight, ‘Lestrygonians’, during which Bloom recalls an early sexual experience with his wife, Molly); the May 1919 number (which included the second half of episode nine, ‘Scylla and Charybdis’); and the January 1920 issue (containing the third instalment of episode twelve, ‘Cyclops’). And when Margaret Anderson distributed unsolicited copies of the July–August 1920 number (which excerpted the 13th episode, ‘Nausicaa’, in which Leopold Bloom surreptitiously masturbates as Gerty MacDowell shows off her leg), one copy fell into the impressionable lap of a New York lawyer’s daughter. She was deeply shocked, and her father brought what had shocked her (and him) to the attention of both the New York County District Attorney and John S Sumner, the zealously over-active secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and in due course Heap and Anderson were charged with obscenity. The trial took place in October 1920, and in February 1921 both women were found guilty and the serial publication of Ulysses in America came to an abrupt and sensational end.

New York Times article reporting the prosecution of the publisher and editor of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Material relating to James Joyce and Ulysses

New York Times report on the prosecution of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, joint editors of the Little Review, regarding the ‘Nausicaa’ episode of Ulysses. The clipping was sent to Harriet Shaw Weaver, Joyce’s patron and publisher in England.

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Letters on the printing of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses

Manuscript drafts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce

Virginia Woolf, writing on behalf of her publishing company, the Hogarth Press, turns down the opportunity to print Ulysses.

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A few instalments of Ulysses had also appeared in the London-based magazine The Egoist in 1919, but British printers had then refused to handle it in any form. Nevertheless, in February 1922, the novel was published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach’s Paris-based Shakespeare and Company, from where it was furtively exported to subscribers on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. But it was frequently intercepted, confiscated and incinerated, none of which came as any surprise to Joyce, who had long suffered such depredations. Indeed,

In the course of the twenty-seven years following 1906 – during which time Joyce wrote the last stories of Dubliners, transformed Stephen Hero into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wrote all of Ulysses and most of Finnegans Wake – Joyce worked with at least one of his major works effectively censored.[2]

Later in 1922 Harriet Shaw Weaver bankrolled a second edition of the novel which was published by her Egoist Press in Paris. When 500 copies of this edition were seized by His Majesty’s Customs and Excise at Folkestone they were burned with conscientious gusto.

G B Shaw's order form for Ulysses

G B Shaw's order form for Ulysses

‘ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication’: the Shakespeare and Company order form for Ulysses that was sent out to potential customers.

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Copyright: © Estate of Sylvia Beach

Overall, Ulysses provoked amazement and acclaim from professional critics and a torrent of prudish censure from commentators who had clearly neither read it from beginning to end nor sympathised with its all-inclusive vision. The most bombastic of these tub-thumping pundits was James Douglas of the Sunday Express, who claimed that:

All the secret sewers of vice are canalised in [Ulysses’s] flood of unimaginable thoughts, images, and pornographic words. And its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the holy name of Christ … The greater the artist the greater is his moral responsibility. If he debases and perverts and degrades the noble gift of imagination and wit and lordship of language in the service of Priapus, in the worship of Libitina, and in the adoration of Libido, let him die the death, and let his works perish with him …[3]

Letters on the printing of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses

Manuscript drafts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce

In this letter Sylvia Beach thanks Harriet Shaw Weaver for sending a cutting of James Douglas’s scathing review which, when she read it aloud, so entertained Joyce that it ‘made him quite forget the pain in his eyes for the moment’.

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Similarly, in December 1922, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Archibald Bodkin, came to the unequivocal view that Ulysses was obscene even though he had only read ‘the final forty or so pages of Molly Bloom’s monologue’[4] (in ‘Penelope’, the concluding episode of the novel), during the course of which she brings to mind graphic details of her sexual encounter with Blazes Boylan. But while it is easy to ridicule the likes of Bodkin and Douglas, we should also bear in mind that Ulysses,

by the legal standards of the time, was profoundly obscene. Not only did it include an encyclopaedic collection of obscene and blasphemous words, including “f*ck”, “c*nt”, “gleet”, and “figged fist”, it also depicted its central protagonist … masturbating while listening to a Catholic choir and gazing at a 17-year-old Irish virgin.[5]

Ten years after its first appearance as a novel, the American publisher Random House went out of its way to challenge the ban on Ulysses by openly importing a copy of it and awaiting the legal fall out from its gambit. The ground-breaking case of the United States of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce came to trial the following year and on 6 December 1933 Judge John M Woolsey declared that the novel was not obscene. ‘[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic’, Woolsey remarked alongside other landmark comments, ‘nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.’[6] His decision was upheld by the New York Circuit Court of Appeals in 1934, and in 1936, following America’s lead, it was published in the United Kingdom for the first time.

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

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

Concluding notes for the case of ‘United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses’, from the New York Circuit Court of Appeals, 1934.

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Ulysses by James Joyce, 1934 American edition

Ulysses by James Joyce, 1934 American edition

Front cover to the first American edition of Ulysses following the landmark legal case in 1933.

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Nevertheless, guardians of Britain’s social hygiene continued to agitate for the suppression of Ulysses. As late as 1950, for example, the Public Morality Council asked one of its more prominent members, the Bishop of London, to re-assess the novel’s offensiveness. In the light of his adverse judgement the PMC then wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew, drawing his attention to passages that it considered most blatantly obscene. But unlike Bodkin, Mathew was unmoved by the PMC’s arguments:

Although … there are certain passages which if extracted, punctuated and published separately, might well be regarded as calculated to corrupt and deprave those into whose hands such a publication might fall, my duty is to look at this book as a whole.


In the first place it is not, in my view, pornographic in the ordinary sense that it was written with the intention of attracting readers to whom such publications have an appeal. It consists of some 750 pages of close print and the action, such as it is, covers a single day. It has no recognizable story but is a vast experiment in all the possibilities, and impossibilities, of the use of English prose.


Whether the experiment was worth making, or is successful, is not for me to judge but, in my opinion, the result is unreadable by an ordinary person. I cannot believe that anybody, who has the patience and the literacy to read and understand this book, would be likely as a result to be corrupted or depraved, though he might well be depressed.


I certainly would not advise with any confidence that a court would hold that it is an obscene publication; and the effect of a prosecution would inevitably be to advertise the objectionable passages, and to encourage the prurient to seek them out in a book which otherwise can have no appeal, except possibly as a literary curiosity to an advanced student of English prose.[7]

In more recent years the controversies surrounding Ulysses have tended to be textual rather than sexual in nature, yet its unfettered frankness still has the power to shock, if not astonish, today’s reader. Its shape-shifting candour, moreover, has had an inestimable effect on the history of anglophone fiction. ‘Being forbidden is part of what made Joyce’s novel so transformative’, Kevin Birmingham reminds us. ‘Ulysses changed not only the course of literature in the century that followed, but the very definition of literature in the eyes of the law.’[8] The legal and moral hostility it generated also changed Joyce, however, gradually damaging his health and exacerbating his sense of creative isolation. Having exercised a preternatural sovereignty over language, he died, all too mundanely, of a perforated ulcer on 13 January 1941.


[1] Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (London: Head of Zeus, 2014), p. 12.

[2] Paul Vanderham, James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of ‘Ulysses’ (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1998), p. 13.

[3] Quoted in David Bradshaw, ‘James Douglas: The Sanitary Inspector of Literature’, in Prudes on the Prowl: Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day, ed. by David Bradshaw and Rachel Potter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 90–110 (pp. 97–98).

[4] Rachel Potter, ‘Censorship and Sovereignty (1916–1929)’, in Prudes on the Prowl, pp. 71–89 (p. 72).

[5] Potter, ‘Censorship and Sovereignty’, p. 72.

[6] Quoted in Vanderham, James Joyce and Censorship, p. 125.

[7] Quoted in David Bradshaw, ‘American Beastliness, the Great Purge and its Aftermath (1946–1959)’, in Prudes on the Prowl, pp. 138–58 (pp. 143–44).

[8] Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book, p. 2.

  • David Bradshaw
  • David Bradshaw (1955–2016) was Professor of English Literature at Oxford University and a Fellow of Worcester College. Specialising in late 19th and early 20th century literature, he published on Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T S Eliot, E M Forster, Aldous Huxley, and Evelyn Waugh, with a particular interest in areas including censorship and obscenity, political and social movements, and the city. Among other modernist texts he has edited Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves, co-edited Prudes on the Prowl: Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day, and was Co-Investigator of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project at University of Leicester.

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