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June 11, 2013

Book-banning has a tendency to backfire

(Continued)

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.”

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