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June 11, 2013

Book-banning has a tendency to backfire

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — So what does the 1960s game show “What’s My Line” got to do with the Bloomsday festivities occurring in Dublin, Ireland, this week? Surprisingly, there is a link.

Put another way, what did “What’s My Line’’ panelist Bennett Cerf have to do with “stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” who opens the novel “Ulysses,’’ which is the instigation for Dubliners and others doing their crawls around the book’s noted neighborhoods.

Well, Bennett Cerf, some may recall, was anything but stately and plump. He was bespectacled and geeky, with a corny sense of humor. But he also was a founder and editor at Random House, the book publisher, and knew just about everybody involved in New York City’s arts and letters scene from the 1930s to the ‘60s.

I guess that’s how he got to be on “What’s My Line,” which is the role for which most folks remember him. Many probably figured that was his only job.

But we really don’t care that much about Buck Mulligan. It was the characters Leopold and Molly Bloom who got “Ulysses” into trouble and made Cerf a champion for anti-censorship in 1933, 80 years ago.

The James Joyce novel was first published in serial form from 1918 to 1922 by The Little Review in New York, until the editors, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were charged with obscenity by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The charges were upheld at trial in 1923.

When the first complete-book copies of “Ulysses,” published in Paris, were sent to New York in 1922, postal officials seized and burned 500 copies. I guess that’s one way to suppress vice.

At that time, Bennett Cerf was working his way up the ladder at the Boni & Liveright publishing firm and became well aware of all the attention “Ulysses” was attracting. He and a partner bought the Modern Library imprint from their firm in 1925, and after sitting around a room piled with books in 1927 trying to decide which to publish, decided to pick some randomly.

Hence, Random House was born.

Meanwhile, as illegal as booze, copies of “Ulysses” were circulating bootleg-style until 1932, when Random House decided to import the book and publish it with a press-run of 10,000 copies. Cerf knew there would be trouble, but he also realized publicity sells books.

The problem was that, while the influence of the Society for the Suppression of Vice had tailed off, Congress in 1930 approved a section of the Tariff Act that forbade the importation of any book that is obscene. Customs officials seized the book before it ever reached Ransom House.

So, thanks to Cerf, the novel ended up back in court with the case “United States v. One Book called Ulysses.” Both parties agreed to a non-jury trial, which would be decided by Judge John M. Woolsey.

In “Ulysses,” Joyce is credited with a new literary genre that presents not only what his characters did on June 16, 1904, but also what they were thinking. The book was considered obscene primarily because of the thoughts of Leopold and Molly Bloom, whose private sentiments, whether arising in an outhouse or on the street, sometimes were sexual.

Can you imagine if our thoughts on any particular day were put down in book form? Obscenity might be the least of our transgressions.

Fortunately, Judge Woolsey understood the nature of Joyce’s “stream-of-consciousness” endeavor, and concluded that the author’s intent was not pornographic and the book not obscene because of his “sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.”

The judge’s decision in favor of Random House was considered “a major event in the history of the struggle for free expression,” as stated by Cerf’s lawyer in the case, Morris Ernst.

Cerf wrote later in his autobiography that “Ulysses was a great best seller, partly because, I think it was one of those books that are considered smart to own and which many people buy but don’t read. Perhaps many did read the last part to see the dirty words; in 1934 that sort of thing was shocking to the general public.”

To this day, the novel is celebrated in Dublin with a week of activities leading up to June 16, which in Ireland is called Bloomsday.

After the court case, Cerf went on to write books primarily of insider gossip and humor. In his 1944 book, “Try and Stop Me,” he recounts a visit to the U.S. by the man, still stately and plump, who as a student was the model for the Buck Mulligan character.

Oliver St. John Goharty told Cerf he had met Joyce in 1903, “when Lady Gregory, patron saint of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, ran out of ‘geniuses’ and advertised for more of same. She was dismayed at the poverty-stricken flood of applicants and fled.”

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.