"A chaffering, all including most farraginous chronicle" is James Joyce's definition of his Ulysses, a book which many a critic considers the most important novel of its generation. Whether Ulysses is also "immoral and obscene" and therefore unfit for U. S. readers was the question which Manhattan's Federal Judge John M. Woolsey last week was ready to answer in the extraordinary case of "The U. S. vs. One Book Entitled Ulysses."
The U. S. Customs started the case in May, 1932 when it seized an unexpurgated copy sent to Publisher Bennett A. Cerf from Paris. Last fortnight there was a hearing in the small elegantly informal courtroom of the Bar Association Building. Publisher Cerf's lawyer, Morris Ernst, who makes a specialty of fighting censorship cases, contended that he had yet to find a single instance which proved that reading any book had led to the commission of a crime. Assistant U. S. Attorney Samuel C. Coleman asked the court not to regard him as a "puritanical censor," said he found "ample grounds to consider Ulysses an obscene book." Fat, bald-headed Judge Woolsey who spent his vacation last summer on Ulysses, puffed a cigaret in a long holder, admitted that "reading parts of that book almost drove me frantic," ended up by saying "I must take a little more time to make up my mind." Last week, Judge Woolsey's mind was made up.
The opinion which he handed down was historic for its authority, its eloquence, its future influence on U. S. book publishing. Excerpts:
"I have read Ulysses once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times. . . . 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.
". . . 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. If one does not wish to associate with such folk as Joyce describes, that is one's own choice. . . . But when such a real artist 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?
"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.' . . . After I had made my decision in regard to the aspect of Ulysses now under consideration I checked my impressions with two friends. . . . I was interested to find that they both agreed with my opinion: that reading Ulysses in its entirety . . . 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. . . .
"My considered opinion after long reflection is that while 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."