In honor of Bloomsday: United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce

In recognition of Constitutional Law Resource Month at the Harris County Law Library and our first amendment right to free speech, we are honoring one of modern literature’s finest works, the controversial novel, Ulysses by James Joyce. First published in Paris in 1922 (after being serialized for three years in The Little Review), Ulysses takes place over the course of a single day. This day, June 16th, is recognized annually as Bloomsday, a celebration of Joyce’s life and an homage to his most famous work.

Although it is now universally touted as an innovative and pioneering work of literature, Ulysses was not always looked upon so favorably. The novel we now celebrate was subject to an implicit obscenity ban, which the American publisher, Random House, who had full rights to publish the book in the United States, sought to challenge. In 1933, Random House imported a French edition of the book, expecting it to be seized upon arrival by the U.S. Customs Service, an assumption which proved to be accurate. After seven months of weighing his options, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, who appreciated the work but questioned its decency under the law, decided to take action against it, leading ultimately to a 1934 obscenity trial in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 72 F.2d 705.  At question in the case was not the artistic merit of the book, but whether such a book should be regarded as "obscene" within section 305 (a) of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 USCA § 1305a). This landmark case was extremely influential in paving a path for the import and publication of literature deemed inappropriate, coarse, or risqué, and, in effect, it reaffirmed our Constitutional right to free expression. Happy Bloomsday!