On This Day: August 7, 1934: “It must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.”

On December 6, 1933, the US Court of Appeals (Judge John Woolsey) judged Ulysses by James Joyce to be NOT obscene and declared that the book could be admitted into the United States. There were then appeals to this decision.

On August 7, 1934, Woolsey’s decision was upheld by the US Court of Appeals. Random House raced to get the book into print, available in America for the first time.

Here’s the first American edition of the book:

The book was initially published by Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare & Co. in 1922. (Post about Sylvia Beach here.) It was controversial even before it was published, but once it was published it was promptly banned. The only way to get it was to order it directly from Shakespeare & Co., and then smuggle it into your country in a box of sweaters or whatever, or you had to visit Paris and buy a copy at the actual bookstore. Shipments of books were seized by U.S. Customs. The legal battles dragged on for a decade. It was already the most talked-about book of the young century, and very few people had an opportunity to actually read it. Worse for Joyce, he couldn’t make any money off it. There were black market editions but they did him no good. A bowdlerized edition appeared which was then suppressed. Joyce was already working on Finnegans Wake, of course, but imagine what those 11, 12 years were like: He wrote UlyssesULYSSES – and nobody could GET it.

Finally, after all the appeals in the U.S. courts, the case made its way to federal Judge John M. Woolsey.


Woolsey hailed from South Carolina and was nominated by President Calvin Coolidge for his seat on the U.S. District Court of Southern New York in 1929. The case against Ulysses was not the first time Woolsey weighed in on freedom of expression vs. censorship. There had been a couple of cases leading up to the Ulysses case:

A book on “married love” had been labeled obscene, and a book on contraception had been labeled obscene, and the controversy made its way into the court system. Woolsey’s decisions on these cases were thoughtful and beautifully articulate (he was an amazing writer). He judged in both of those cases that the books (as well as the subject matter – even more radical) were NOT obscene.

It’s worth it to take a look at his decision in 1931 about the book “Married Love.”. He builds his case, meticulously:

“Married Love” is a considered attempt to explain to married people how their mutual sex life may be made happier.

To one who had read Havelock Ellis, as I have, the subject-matter of Dr. Stope’s book is not wholly new, but it emphasizes the woman’s side of sex questions. It makes also some apparently justified criticisms of the inopportune exercise by the man in the marriage relation of what are often referred to as his conjugal or marital rights, and it pleads with seriousness, and not without some eloquence, for a better understanding by husbands of the physical and emotional side of the sex life of their wives.

I do not find anything exceptionable anywhere in the book, and I cannot imagine a normal mind to which this book would seem to be obscene or immoral within the proper definition of these words or whose sex impulses would be stirred by reading it.

Whether or not the book is scientific in some of its theses is unimportant. It is informative and instructive, and I think that any married folk who read it cannot fail to be benefited by its counsels of perfection and its frank discussion of the frequent difficulties which necessarily arise in the more intimate aspects of married life, for as Professor William G. Sumner used aptly to say in his lectures on the Science of Society at Yale, marriage, in its essence, is a status of antagonistic co-operation.

In such a status, necessarily, centripetal and centrifugal forces are continuously at work, and the measure of its success obviously depends on the extent to which the centripetal forces are predominant.

The book before me here has as its whole thesis the strengthening of the centripetal forces in marriage, and instead of being inhospitably received, it should, I think, be welcomed within our borders.

That is rather beautiful, I think.

Let’s also check out Woolsey’s conclusion in his 1931 decision about the book “Contraception:”

I have read “Contraception,” and I find that it does not fall, in any respect, within these definitions of the words “obscene” or “immoral.”…

Such a book, although it may run counter to the views of many persons who disagree entirely with the theory underlying birth control, certainly does not fall within the test of obscenity or immorality laid down by me in the case of United States v. One Obscene Book, Entitled “Married Love,” 48 F. (2d) 821, at page 824, for the reading of it would not stir the sex impulses of any person with a normal mind.

Actually the emotions aroused by the book are merely feelings of sympathy and pity, evoked by the many cases instanced in it of the sufferings of married women due to ignorance of its teachings. This, I believe, will be the inevitable effect of reading it on all persons of sensibility unless by their prejudices the information it contains is tabooed.

It follows that as “Contraception” is not an obscene or immoral book, and, obviously, is not a drug, medicine, or an article for the prevention of conception within the meaning of title 19, U. S. C., § 1305, it may be imported into the United States and the libel brought in this case to test that question must be dismissed.

After these landmark decisions, Woolsey was “the one” to weigh in on the case known as: United States v. One Book Called Ulysses. He read the book. He read opinions on the book. He then came forth with his judgment that the book was not obscene and therefore could be published in the United States. A great triumph for freedom of speech (as well as freedom of thought.)

My Bloomsday pal Jonathan Goldman edited a book about Joyce and the law. You can order it here.

Bennett Cerf, influential American publisher, was a champion of the cause; he understood the situation’s urgency. When Ulysses was finally brought out in America in 1934, Judge Woolsey’s decision was included in the edition its entirety, making it the most widely distributed judicial decision in history.

Morris L. Ernst, counsel for Random House, successfully defended the book against obscenity charges in 1933-34, and wrote in his foreward to the 1934 edition:

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Judge Woolsey’s decision. For decades the censors have fought to emasculate literature. They have tried to set up the sensibilities of the prudery-ridden as a criterion for society, have sought to reduce the reading matter of adults to the level of adolescents and subnormal persons, and have nurtured evasions and sanctimonies.

Here is Judge Woolsey’s decision in its entirety. It is a masterpiece: an important legal decision, but also a sensitive analysis of the book itself:

United States Discrict Court, Southern District of New York, Opinion A. 110-59

December 6, 1933

On cross motions for a decree in a libel of confiscation, supplemented by a stipulation — hereinafter described — brought by the United States against the book “Ulysses” by James Joyce, under Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, Title 19 United States Code, Section 1305, on the ground that the book is obscene within the meaning of that Section, and, hence, is not importable into the United States, but is subject to seizure, forfeiture and confiscation and destruction.

United States Attorney — by Samuel C. Coleman, Esq., and Nicholas Atlas, Esq., of counsel — for the United States, in support of motion for a decree of forfeiture, and in opposition to motion for a decree dismissing the libel.

Messrs. Greenbaum, Wolff and Ernst, — by Morris L. Ernst, Esq., and Alexander Lindey, Esq., of counsel — attorneys for claimant Random House, Inc., in support of motion for a decree dismissing the libel, and in opposition to a motion for a decree of forfeiture.

The motion for a decree dismissing the libel herein is granted, and, consequently, of course, the Government’s motion for a decree of forfeiture and destruction is denied.

Accordingly a decree dismissing the libel without costs may be entered herein.

1. The practice followed in this case is in accordance with the suggestion made by me in the case of United States v. One Book Entitled “Contraception”, 51 F. (2d) 525, and is as follows:

After issue was joined by the filing of the claimant’s answer to the libel for forfeiture against “Ulysses”, a stipulation was made between the United States Attorney’s office and the attorneys for the claimant providing:

1. That the book “Ulysses” should be deemed to have been annexed to and to have become part of the libel just as if it had been incorporated in its entirety therein.
2. That the parties waived their right to a trial by jury.
3. That each party agreed to move for decree in its favor.
4. That on such cross motions the Court might decide all the questions of law and fact involved and render a general finding thereon.
5. That on the decision of such motions the decree of the Court might be entered as if it were a decree after trial.

It seems to me that a procedure of this kind is highly appropriate in libels for the confiscation of books such as this. It is an especially advantageous procedure in the instant case because on account of the length of “Ulysses” and the difficulty of reading it, a jury trial would have been an extremely unsatisfactory, if not an almost impossible, method of dealing with it.

2. I have read “Ulysses” once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times. In fact, for many weeks, my spare time has been devoted to the consideration of the decision which my duty would require me to make in this matter.

“Ulysses” is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of “Ulysses” is, therefore, a heavy task.

3. The reputation of “Ulysses” in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, — that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.

If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic that is the end of the inquiry and forfeiture must follow.

But in “Ulysses”, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

4. In writing “Ulysses”, Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the City bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while.

Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.

What he seeks to get is not unlike the result of a double or, if that is possible, a multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.

To convey by words an effect which obviously lends itself more appropriately to a graphic technique, accounts, it seems to me, for much of the obscurity which meets a reader of “Ulysses”. And it also explains another aspect of the book, which I have further to consider, namely, Joyce’s sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.

If Joyce did not attempt to be honest in developing the technique which he has adopted in “Ulysses” the result would be psychologically misleading and thus unfaithful to his chosen technique. Such an attitude would be artistically inexcusable.

It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.

The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe. In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.

Whether or not one enjoys such a technique as Joyce uses is a matter of taste on which disagreement or argument is futile, but to subject that technique to the standards of some other technique seems to me to be little short of absurd.

Accordingly, I hold that “Ulysses” is a sincere and honest book and I think that the criticisms of it are entirely disposed of by its rationale.

5. Furthermore, “Ulysses” is an amazing tour de force when one considers the success which has been in the main achieved with such a difficult objective as Joyce set for himself. As I have stated, “Ulysses” is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.

If one does not wish to associate with such folk as Joyce describes, that is one’s own choice. In order to avoid indirect contact with them one may not wish to read “Ulysses”; that is quite understandable. But when such a real artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?

To answer this question it is not sufficient merely to find, as I have found above, that Joyce did not write “Ulysses” with what is commonly called pornographic intent, I must endeavor to apply a more objective standard to his book in order to determine its effect in the result, irrespective of the intent with which it was written.

6. The statute under which the libel is filed only denounces, in so far as we are here concerned, the importation into the United States from any foreign country of “any obscene book”. Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, Title 19 United States Code, Section 1305. It does not marshal against books the spectrum of condemnatory adjectives found, commonly, in laws dealing with matters of this kind. I am, therefore, only required to determine whether “Ulysses” is obscene within the legal definition of that word.

The meaning of the word “obscene” as legally defined by the Courts is: tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts. Dunlop v. United States, 165 U.S. 486, 501; United States v. One Book Entitled “Contraception”, 51 F. (2d) 525, 528; and compare Dysart v. United States, 272 U.S. 655, 657; Swearingen v. United States 151 U.S. 446, 450; United States v. Dennett, 39 F. (2d) 564, 568 (C.C.A. 2); People v. Wendling, 258 N.Y. 451, 453.

Whether a particular book would tend to excite such impulses and thoughts must be tested by the Court’s opinion as to its effect on a person with average sex instincts — what the French would call l’homme moyen sensuel — who plays, in this branch of legal inquiry, the same role of hypothetical reagent as does the “reasonable man” in the law of torts and “the man learned in the art” on questions of invention in patent law.

The risk involved in the use of such a reagent arises from the inherent tendency of the trier of facts, however fair he may intend to be, to make his reagent too much subservient to his own idiosyncrasies. Here, I have attempted to avoid this, if possible, and to make my reagent herein more objective than he might otherwise be, by adopting the following course:

After I had made my decision in regard to the aspect of “Ulysses”, now under consideration, I checked my impressions with two friends of mine who in my opinion answered to the above stated requirement for my reagent.

These literary assessors — as I might properly describe them — were called on separately, and neither knew that I was consulting the other. They are men whose opinion on literature and on life I value most highly. They had both read “Ulysses”, and, of course, were wholly unconnected with this cause.

Without letting either of my assessors know what my decision was, I gave to each of them the legal definition of obscene and asked each whether in his opinion “Ulysses” was obscene within that definition.

I was interested to find that they both agreed with my opinion: that reading “Ulysses” in its entirety, as a book must be read on such a test as this, did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.

It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned. Such a test as I have described, therefore, is the only proper test of obscenity in the case of a book like “Ulysses” which is a sincere and serious attempt to devise a new literary method for the observation and description of mankind.

I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes “Ulysses” is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of “Ulysses” on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.

“Ulysses” may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.

United States District Judge

Woolsey’s decision was affirmed by the Second District Court of Appeals in 1934. It’s well worth remembering that America was the first English-speaking country where Ulysses became available to all, sold in bookstores, free to be read by all.

When Joyce heard of Woolsey’s decision, he commented:

Thus one half of the English speaking world surrenders. The other half will follow … And Ireland 1,000 years hence.

He exaggerated, of course, but he was pretty near right.

Woolsey’s decision is still a triumph, and his conclusions are ones we would do well to remember – not just when it’s thoughts/expressions we agree with, but more importantly when we disagree. Freedom of speech is tough, it requires vigilance, but the concept is as important as it gets in any so-called free society.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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28 Responses to On This Day: August 7, 1934: “It must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.”

  1. Doc Horton says:

    Thanks, Judge, for being such a very intelligent guy.

  2. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Republishing this shining example of what jurisprudence ought to be about is, alone and in itself, a worthy activity for the blazing month of August, Ms O’Malley! It gives one some hope amid the rising din of no-nothingism and outright horror that surrounds all of us today.

  3. Jessie says:

    In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.

    • sheila says:


      God, I love that sketch.

      “Know what I mean know what I mean know what I mean …”

      YES. We know what you mean.

  4. Jonathan says:

    The current issue of the James Joyce Quarterly (labelled Summer 2013 but actually just printed) has no fewer than three re-assessments of Woolsey, authored respectively by Federal Judge John Gleeson, historian Kevin Birmingham, and Law/Literature Professor Robert Spoo. Check it out. (Full disclosure: I guest-edited the issue.)

  5. Lyrie says:

    // marriage, in its essence, is a status of antagonistic co-operation //
    I’m thinking of getting this tattooed. On my butt, maybe.

    // tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts //
    I find this sentence arousing.

    // a person with average sex instincts — what the French would call l’homme moyen sensuel //
    What? Don’t listen to the French, they’re all drunkards and sex maniacs.

    // I checked my impressions with two friends of mine who in my opinion answered to the above stated requirement //
    Now I’m curious about those friendships, Judge.

    Funny, I almost bought Ulysses yesterday. Then I got scared. And the pile of books in my hands was already too big anyway. But now I really want to know what that is all about.

    I love Eric Idle. His face, his voice.

    • sheila says:

      Lyrie – ha, I love the phrase “antagonistic co-operation” too.

      I think he’s complimenting the French there, saying that the “average sex instincts” are not seen as pornographic/obscene in their culture (and their language).

      He admits that literary taste is subjective – and if you don’t want to read Ulysses or if it’s not your taste – that’s fine – but he definitely wanted outside opinions from folks he trusted who brought a different context to the Ulysses argument. I think it’s kind of great that he admitted he reached out to friends to weigh in. What judge does that? (Granted, I am not an expert in legal decisions.) The decision, ultimately, was his – but in the topic of literature you kind of have to admit that personal taste is going to be a huge factor.

      Ulysses, honestly, is a hoot. Its big serious intimidating reputation is almost harmful – because it’s filled with dirty jokes, silly asides, dumb puns, fart jokes, and limp penis jokes. It’s also beautifully humanistic.

      I totally understand people being scared of it though – and also not wanting to commit to it – because of the pile of books already to be read. I was scared of it too. Thankfully, I had my dad to go to with questions and “what the hell does this mean” etc. We had some great conversations!

      • Lyrie says:

        // I think he’s complimenting the French there, saying that the “average sex instincts” are not seen as pornographic/obscene in their culture (and their language). //
        I know. It’s just that the whole world seems to have an opinion on The French and sex, and it’s funny to me.

        // he definitely wanted outside opinions from folks he trusted who brought a different context to the Ulysses argument. I think it’s kind of great that he admitted he reached out to friends to weigh in. What judge does that? //
        You’re right, it is great. I see a great intellectual honesty in his approach. I’m just wondering how he knew that those friends, were, you know, sexually normal? Although I understand the idea and the context, it just amuses me.

        // Ulysses, honestly, is a hoot. Its big serious intimidating reputation is almost harmful – because it’s filled with dirty jokes, silly asides, dumb puns, fart jokes, and limp penis jokes. It’s also beautifully humanistic. //
        Of course, presented like that, I really have to give a try.

        // Thankfully, I had my dad to go to with questions and “what the hell does this mean” etc. We had some great conversations!//
        My English is good enough that I just don’t enjoy reading translations anymore, but not good enough to really understand some books. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed some Faulkner stuff, for instance, but damn, that shit is hard to read! So I’m always worried I won’t get it, you know?
        And since I have no one to talk to about books – at least not this kind – it’s sometimes a very lonely struggle (please, pity me). I’ve had a few great teachers, whom I think about very often. I miss them. They have no idea.

        • sheila says:

          Have you seen Eddie Izzard’s bit about French movies?

          “Allo. My name is Pierre. I come from Paris. I’m here to have sex with your family.”

          • Lyrie says:

            Ha! I’m blessed with a terrible memory, so I might have seen it and forgotten it. This made me laugh out loud. I love Izzard’s mind.

          • sheila says:

            Isn’t it hysterical??

            He also does a hilarious imitation of British movies where nothing happens.

            “What are you doing, Sebastian?”
            “I’m arranging matches.”


      • Just finished re-reading Ulysses. The first time was during the great Northeaster called the Perfect Storm. I was in a little house, about 500 sq. ft., on the bay side of East Hampton, NY, where I’m from. I was told to evacuate. The water was lapping at the door and the sleet was driving sideways and it was lightening. I had a roaring fire going. I’d started reading before the storm and kept reading long after, till I was done. I’d prepped myself by reading the Cliff’s Notes, for it, (absolutely great!) and Hugh Kenner’s Joyce’s Voices…and, well, I was already a Joyce buff, I guess…I’m an old geezer living in Fla. Age 75. smiley face.

  6. Melanie says:

    //it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring//

    Because of course we clean minded Americans have nothing to fear from those faraway Celts and their minds that turn to //sex impulses or … sexually impure and lustful thoughts// in the Springtime.

    And another thing. How is it that the fine judge happens to have 2 friends who have already read this illegal book, hmmmm?

    Just joking. Thank goodness for his fairmindedness as much for the sake of the first 2 books as for Ullysses. I’m learning more and becoming increasingly fascinated with the British feminist movement – Wollstoncraft, Stopes, Mary Shelly. Funny how it always seems to come around to the monsters?

    • sheila says:

      It’s an important moment in the history of free speech and Joyce’s book was RADICAL at the time (still is) – so context is very important – which is what Woolsey set out, painstakingly, here. People were freaked OUT by this book – around the world. It ends with a woman masturbating to orgasm (which is also one of the most beautiful sequences of writing in existence.) Joyce said he wanted to end the book on “the most positive word in the English language” which is “Yes”.

      I think his wording about Celtic and Spring is gorgeous. He is placing the book in a literary context. He is analyzing it as a work of literature, studying its themes and concerns. Joyce was determined to give Ireland and the Celts to the world, unvarnished, as they are. He was brutal towards his people, and he loved them dearly. He said that if the world vanished tomorrow, you should be able to rebuild Dublin by reading Ulysses. So no need to poke fun. Celts and Spring ARE his locales. Damn right. James Joyce could not live in Ireland but Ireland was all he could write about or care about.

      There were many ways to get copies of the book – as I said, smuggling, passing around copies, if you wanted to read something you got your hands on it. That’s the American way, my friends. There are stories in Sylvia Beach’s letters (she who was the original publisher) of having boxes of books smuggled to her family in the US, wrapped up in clothes in suitcases.

      And of course Woolsey would have passed his copy along to friends – or they already had copies – to get their opinions, to have them weigh in. He was a smart man.

      Coincidentally, I just wrote a huge post about Percy Shelley where Mary (and Wollstonecraft et al) make cameos!

      Of course my favorite British feminist is Rebecca West. I’ve written 300 posts about her. One of my idols.

  7. Cousin Mike says:


  8. Mitch Berg says:

    Love this! I gotta refer it to some friends who were discussing this with me a while back.

    Hey – I hope you’ll pardon the borderline thread-jack, but as you’re one of the bigger Karate Kid fans I’ve ever met, I couldn’t help wondering if you’d seen Cobra Kai yet?

    • sheila says:

      Mitch!! Bah, have no idea if you’ll see my reply it’s been shamefully long – busy busy – I wanted to say that I haven’t seen Cobra Kai yet – but it’s so weird that you said this because literally the night before you left the comment some film critic dudes were telling me about it as we waited for the subway. So there must be something in the air.

      Have you seen it? Do you like it?

  9. Did I come upon Joseph Hassett’s “The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law” through you, or some other way? If you don’t know it, I recommend it

  10. Thank you for reminding us of how enlightened judge John Woolsey was. His judgement opened the path for publication of Ulysses in the entire English-speaking world. I very much enjoyed reading the comments also, and your own insights.

    For more on Joyce and the influence of legal cases in his writing, the late Adrian Hardiman’s Joyce in Court is worth reading: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Joyce-Court-Adrian-Hardiman/dp/1786691582

    antagonistic co-operation… Fantastic to read this today, on my wedding anniversary:)

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