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June 11, 2013

Book-banning has a tendency to backfire

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.

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