This essay was first delivered as a lecture at the Law, Literature and Translation Conference at Trinity College Dublin on June 9th and 10th, 2012.
Literature and law meet each other head on when a book is alleged to be obscene. The law’s enforcers assert that the very presence of the book harms society, and seek to ban it. This clash was described in apocalyptic terms by Jane Heap as she faced criminal charges in 1920 for publishing an episode of Ulysses in The Little Review, a magazine she co-edited with her lover, Margaret Anderson, the founder of that pioneering publication. Heap wrote that “art is and always has been the supreme Order” and thus is the only human activity “that has an eternal quality”. Standing on this premise, she expressed her view of the trial in a harrumph: “What legal genius to bring law against Order.” Anderson saw the issue the same way. She believed that a work of art could not be obscene. The only pertinent question to be asked about Ulysses, she wrote, was whether it was a work of art.
Anderson and Heap’s views would be substantially vindicated thirteen years later by a judicial decision that cleared Ulysses of obscenity charges in the United States, a watershed event that accorded literary criticism a prominent role in obscenity cases. Indeed the role of literary criticism in obscenity trials became so central that the 1960 English trial which exonerated Lady Chatterley’s Lover was described as “probably the most thorough and expensive seminar on Lawrence’s work ever given”.
But Anderson and Heap themselves were convicted of a crime in 1921 for publishing an episode of a work that was later declared the greatest English language novel of the twentieth century. The struggle between law and literature never ends. It is as old as Plato, who banished poets from his Republic because he distrusted their seductive appeal to the emotions. It is as recent as the next politician who, like American presidential contender Rick Santorum, promises more vigorous enforcement of obscenity laws. Given the neverending nature of this struggle between law and literature, it is worth examining how obscenity cases are won or lost, and the two trials of Ulysses are good case studies because different approaches brought very different results.
The case against Anderson and Heap began when John Sumner, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, swore out a warrant complaining of the distribution of the July-August 1920 number of The Little Review, which contained the last section of the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses. As Pound put it to Joyce, “ … ‘Nausikaa has been pinched by the po-lice”. Anderson and Heap were charged with violating a broadly worded New York statute that criminalised the distribution of “any obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent, or disgusting” material.
Ten passages, consisting of about two single-spaced typewritten pages, were the basis for the charges. Focusing on Bloom ejaculating as he watches Gerty MacDowell leaning backwards on Sandymount Strand, they included these Bloomian musings:
Near her monthlies, I expect, makes them feel ticklish … but then why don’t all women menstruate at the same time with the same moon?
Wonder if it is bad to go with them then.
Mr. Bloom with careful hand recomposed his shirt.
Lord, I am wet.
For this relief much thanks.
Short snooze now if I had. And she can do the other.
Then-prevailing judicial decisions, following an 1868 Queen’s Bench decision, Queen v Hicklin, defined a work as obscene if it tended to excite sexual desire. Had those of us in this room been called upon to defend the book, there were a variety of possible approaches:
First, there is the seemingly obvious argument that exciting sexual desire ‑ an enterprise necessary to preserving the species – ought not be declared out of bounds for literature. Anderson and Heap put this position somewhat differently. For them, literature, by definition, could not be obscene. A second approach, at the level of the minor premise, is the argument that, in fact, the book does not excite sexual desire. This appeals to the advocate as the path of least resistance because it operates within the contours of existing legal precedent.
Midway between these approaches is the tenebrous field where the arguments of lawyers often attempt to reshape the law. Among the prominent features of the legal landscape at the time Ulysses was serialised and published were two subsidiary rules stated in Hicklin. The first was that the obscenity of a work is to be measured by its effect – not on the law’s typical reagent, “the reasonable man” ‑ but on the most susceptible potential reader – “those whose minds are open to such immoral influences”. The second troubling Hicklin rule was that any obscenity in a book violated the statute, no matter how beautifully written the book might be as a whole. As one New York court put it:
Charm of language, subtlety of thought, faultless style, even distinction of authorship, may all have their lure for the literary critic, yet these qualities may all be present and the book be unfit for dissemination to the reading public.
This view has ancient roots. It was the very beauty of Homer and Sophocles that convinced Plato of the danger of their language and imagery. Under this approach, the better the writing the more dangerous the obscenity.
The task of the advocate for Anderson and Heap was to find the ideas, verbal formulae and persuasive force to change these Hicklin rules so that Joyce’s literary achievement would weigh more heavily than the shock effect of Bloom’s wet shirt or Gerty’s monthlies. New York lawyer John Quinn, who had provided the funds that enabled Ezra Pound to bring Ulysses to The Little Review, was an almost automatic choice to defend Anderson and Heap. But he was unsuited to the task for a number of reasons, most of them unknown to his clients. The first was his paternalistic belief that unwitting recipients of magazines through the postal system should be protected from Ulysses. Quinn’s October 16th, 1920 letter to Pound reflects his view that “There are things in Ulysses published in number after number of the Little Review that never should have appeared in a magazine asking privileges of the mails. In a book, yes. In a magazine, emphatically no.”
Secondly, Quinn believed that the only way Joyce could profit from Ulysses was by sale of a limited edition in book form, and that serialisation would lead to a criminal conviction that would scare publishers away from the book. Finally, the most serious obstacles to Quinn’s success were a terrible misogyny compounded by prejudice against Anderson and Heap’s lesbianism. His disgusting letter to Pound rants against the “female urinal” from which The Little Review was published and accuses his clients of having the “perverted courage of the bugger and Lesbian … ” A deeply disturbed part of his mind associated the periodic publication of the magazine with the menstrual cycle. His letter fulminates about his clients’ “menstrual defecations”, “the monthly mensurations”, as he put it, by which Anderson and Heap have “urinally and menstrually violate[d] the law”. His follow-up letter continues the same terrible trope. Borrowing a word from one of the Bloomian musings being attacked by Sumner, Quinn refers to issues of The Little Review as “monthlies”. Quinn was a man of great abilities and a ready patron, but his mind suffered from painful limitations as an advocate for liberated and liberating women like Molly Bloom, Gerty MacDowell, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap.
Quinn’s limitations were unfortunate because, despite the generally forbidding terrain created by the Hicklin precedent, there was room for manoeuvre. Judge Learned Hand, in a 1913 opinion in a case in which Quinn represented the defendant, had characterized Hicklin as reflective of “mid-Victorian morals” and questioned “whether in the end men will regard that as obscene which is honestly relevant to the adequate expression of innocent ideas, and whether they will not believe that truth and beauty are too precious to society at large to be mutilated in the interests of those most likely to pervert them to base uses”.
Judge Hand’s opinion was an open invitation to the advocate for an author like Joyce to establish that the law ought not bar portrayal of the serious and beautiful way in which reality reveals itself in the sexually tinged imagination. Moreover, that very case was articulated for Quinn in a long letter written by a brilliant man of letters trained as a barrister in Dublin, eighty-one-year-old John Butler Yeats, father of poet William Butler Yeats and an 1862 graduate of Trinity College Dublin.
Yeats realised that “it is really a grave issue … whether the books of Joyce and such as he are to go free or not”. He recognised in Joyce “an intense feeling for what is actual and true” and saw that “[t]he whole movement against Joyce and his terrible veracity, naked and unashamed, has its origin in the desire of people to live comfortably, and, that they may live comfortably, to live superficially”.
Yeats’s keen eye focused on the statutory term “filthy”, the etymological root of obscene. “That such a man” as Joyce “should write filth is incredible …”, Yeats declared. Citing two other graduates of Trinity College, he argued that Joyce’s “intense feeling for what is actual and true” stands mid-way between worship of “the beautiful”, as exemplified by Wilde, and fixation on “the ugly”, as exemplified by Swift. With avuncular familiarity, Yeats remarked that Wilde “said to my son that intellect could refine anything … Beauty was the God of his heaven, and ugliness its devil.”
In contrast to him stood Dean Swift, who “died in mental misery; broken down by what? ‑ his passion for the ugly, by that constant contemplation of the hideous”. What Yeats called these “two types of men of great imagination and genius, and both Irishmen” defined the boundaries. Midway between them stood Dante, who, as Yeats said, “never shrank from the hideous and the obscene” and who taught Joyce “that terrible hardness, that hardness of which Wilde had so little and Swift too much”.
Yeats’s powerful ideas fared worse than the seed that fell upon rock. Quinn perverted them terribly in his argument to city magistrate JE Corrigan at a preliminary hearing on the charges against Anderson and Heap. Converting Yeats’s aesthetic argument into a moral one, he argued that it is beauty that corrupts, but filth that deters, and contrasted “the strong hard filth of a man like Joyce with the devotion to art of a soft flabby man like Wilde”. This is bad criticism and worse advocacy. The idea of confessing filth, but pleading hardness in avoidance was not an inspired one.
Quinn’s other argument was another perversion of Yeats. The latter had argued that “Joyce brings with him what will protect him from the silly … for Joyce is very difficult reading …” Quinn reduced this subtle observation to the absurd “syllogism” that the reader would either understand the “Nausicaa” episode or not. “If he understood what it meant, Quinn argued, then it couldn’t corrupt him, for it would either amuse or bore him. If he didn’t understand what it meant, then it could [not] corrupt him.” Magistrate Corrigan had no trouble penetrating this thinking. The passage “where the man went off in his pants”, Corrigan ruled, was unmistakable in meaning and “smutty, filthy within the meaning of the statute”. So much for the syllogism.
Quinn’s account of the ensuing trial before three city court judges ‑ contained in letters to Joyce and Shane Leslie – shows how far he departed from Heap’s absolutism and Anderson’s desire for a defence based upon her belief that Ulysses was the “the prose masterpiece of my generation”. Branding the judges as “stupid” because they were unlikely to be interested in reading The Little Review, Quinn boasted to Joyce that he had appealed to their ignorance, confessing that he had made “what many people in court called a brilliant argument” which he described as “the only tack that could be taken with the three stupid judges”. This bit of brilliance was the assertion “that no one could understand what the thing was about” and thus it could not corrupt anyone. Before Joyce had time to digest this revelation, Quinn was regaling him with the “good point” he made that the anger manifested in the prosecutor’s argument was “my best exhibit” because it showed that “what Ulysses does” is to make people angry, but “it doesn’t drive them to the arms of some siren”.
Confusing the effect of being the prosecutor in an obscenity trial of Ulysses with the effect of reading the book, Quinn deprived the occasion of the seriousness it demanded. “The judges were rocking with laughter,” he wrote to Joyce, “and again I thought I had them.” The joke, however, was on Joyce, Anderson and Heap. Anderson and Heap were fined fifty dollars each, and it was stipulated that no further instalments of Ulysses would be published. Quinn welcomed the ban on serialisation, and was convinced that an appeal would fail and thereby harm Joyce’s ability to market the book as a whole. Thus he had decided in advance of trial that there would be no appeal from the assumed conviction. He informed Anderson a few days before the trial that he would not make a record of “witnesses, experts and critics, and passages of comparative literature” for an appeal as he would have done had he “thought there was a fighting chance in the matter … ” Although Quinn sufficiently altered his view at the last minute to concede that expert testimony might be admissible to mitigate punishment, the thrust of the expert testimony he offered was directed only to the point that Ulysses would not corrupt readers, but did not demonstrate its quality as literature. No appeal was taken. Quinn never forced the judicial system to confront the core issue ‑ the quality of Ulysses as literature. Within about a year of the time an appeal would have been decided, New York’s highest court decided in the Halsey case that the book in an obscenity case must be considered as a whole, and that expert opinion is admissible as to an author’s reputation and a book’s merit. Joyce’s work had been found obscene without Quinn’s having sought an appellate ruling on these important issues. Reflecting on Quinn’s performance as counsel, Joyce commented to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver that the offence was less grotesque than the defence.
One of the most dispiriting aspects of Quinn’s defence was the way it trivialised Joyce’s book, and books generally. The gist of his argument was that the book could cause no harm because it really had no effect. That fatuous untruth has never been exposed more simply than in the retelling of the story of Paolo and Francesca by Joyce’s master, Dante. In Book V of the Inferno, Francesca tells how, as she and her tutor read the story of Lancelot,
[s]everal times that reading urged our eyes to meet, and took the color from our faces; but one moment alone it was that overcame us. When we read how the longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, this one, who never shall be parted from me, kissed my mouth all trembling. [Referring to the go-between who urged Guinevere to kiss Lancelot, Francesca continues] A Galleotto was the book and he who wrote it; that day we read no farther in it.
Appropriating a line from Dante’s La Vita Nuova, Francesca identifies the force that seized the lovers as “Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende” ‑ Love, which is quickly kindled in a gentle heart. Neither Dante nor Joyce was willing to pretend that the erotic imagination lacks power, or that literature is incapable of conveying it.
It was more than a dozen years before a court would grapple with the essence of Ulysses. In 1932, Random House founder Bennett Cerf, with the sage advice of attorney Morris Ernst, set out to clear the path for Ulysses to reach the wider audience it deserved. To be sure, they had the benefit of the fact that the novel as a whole had been published in Paris and had received some (if far from overwhelming) critical approbation. On the other hand, they had to deal with the concluding Molly Bloom monologue, which Joyce characterised as “probably more obscene than any preceding episode”. Importantly, they brought a willingness to insist upon the veracity and value of Joyce’s work.
The brief presented on behalf of Random House pictured Joyce as a distinguished man of letters, quoting encomiums from the likes of John Middleton Murry, Rebecca West, Arnold Bennett and Ernest Boyd. Moreover, Ernst delivered copies of critical commentary by Stuart Gilbert and Paul Jordan Smith to the trial judge, John Woolsey, who already had a copy of Herbert Gorman’s biography of Joyce. Ernst’s summation on Joyce’s stature as a man of letters echoed Yeats, who had argued: “That such a man as Joyce should write filth is incredible.” Ernst said almost the same thing: “It is monstrous to suppose that a man of the stature of Joyce would or could produce a work of obscenity.” Authors of critical works will be interested to know that Woolsey’s decision noted that his reading of Ulysses was accompanied by perusal of “a number of other books which have now become its satellite”.
It remained necessary to come to grips with the text. Confronted with a charge that Ulysses is obscene, the mind of the advocate seems incapable of resisting the argument that it is too obscure to excite. Ernst put it this way:
[Ulysses] is far too tedious and labyrinthine and bewildering for the untutored and the impressionable who might conceivably be affected by it. Such people would not get beyond the first dozen pages.
Referring to a case that had relied on the difficulty of James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen in finding it not to be obscene, Ernst argued that “[b]eside [Ulysses], Jurgen is a child’s primer. It is not only the language that is baffling; the construction is almost unbelievably involved.” As an example of the difficulty of the language, Ernst cited some words selected at random from the book, including whelks, cataletic, houyhnhnm, crubeen, parallax, cygnets, entelechy, yogibogeybox, apocrypha, tympanum, demisemiquaver, videlicet, cruiskeen, oxter, topiary, and epicene. Moreover, he argued, “incomprehensible paragraphs” recur again and again. Those who have struggled to parse the section of Proteus beginning “[i]neluctable modality of the visible” will be pleased to find it cited prominently among the incomprehensible.
One can empathise with the advocate’s desire to elude the question of obscenity with the red herring of obscurity. But sooner or later, a rigorous assessment of whether Ulysses was barred by the statutory ban on obscene works must come to grips with the fact that the essence of Ulysses ‑ its warp and woof ‑ is Joyce’s conviction that sexual desire lies at the heart of things. Ernst sought to whistle his way past this core issue, arguing that “[t]hough the element of sex is present, it is relegated to a position of relative unimportance”. To their credit, the judges faced with the task of applying the statute to the book were not so facile. The current of erotic imagination that animates Ulysses could not be swept under the rug.
The judicial wrestling with this lively question resulted in an unusual instance of resolving a legal question in terms of literary technique. Without explicitly using the term “stream of consciousness”, Judge Woolsey opined that Joyce was experimenting in a new literary genre in which he attempted
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.
The important point here is that the characters are not consciously indulging themselves in erotic imaginings. Rather, the primal energy of Eros is forcing itself on the characters. Accordingly, if there is a strong sexual undercurrent in Ulysses, it is not the fault of either Joyce or the reader:
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.
Woolsey’s analysis brought him exactly to where John Butler Yeats was in his 1920 letter to Quinn. Yeats had written that the reason for the outcry against Joyce was his terrible veracity. Woolsey made the same point:
It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique [Woolsey wrote] 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.
Law and literature blend seamlessly here because it is Joyce’s mastery as a writer that convinces Woolsey that it would be wrong for the law to silence him. Woolsey was responding to a feature of Joyce’s writing pinpointed by the great University College Dublin professor Augustine Martin, who wrote that Joyce’s literary achievement was the invention of “a range of technical and linguistic resources” of the necessary “power and range” to break “[t]he sound barrier of … social reticence, the wall ‑ at least the facade ‑ between the public and private self that Victoria’s reign had so consolidated, and which the Catholic Church in Ireland had so reinforced”. Joyce’s piercing of the sound barrier between public and private showed Woolsey the way to break the hold of the Victorian Hicklin case on the law of obscenity.
We know that the prosecution urged Woolsey’s special attention to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Importantly, Ernst’s emphasis on the quality of Ulysses as literature provided Molly with a platform from which she commanded serious attention. In the argument Molly crafted from her bed in Eccles Street, Woolsey could not help but find the rationale for putting off pretence and recognising the role of the erotic imagination: “What else were we given all those desires for I’d like to know?” is a question sharply posed by Molly that demanded an answer from a judge being asked to ban a book that draws attention to the fact of those desires. Those desires and their manifestations “didn’t make me blush,” argued Molly: “why should it either? It’s only nature.”
Woolsey’s implicit acceptance of Molly’s argument enabled him to swallow the admittedly “strong draught” of Ulysses. It remained to reconcile his conclusion with the law of obscenity, which still adhered to the twin views of the old Hicklin case that the measure of obscenity was the impact of isolated passages on the susceptible. A controlling federal case, United States v Bennett, so held. A better critic than legal scholar, Woolsey simply plunged ahead with the ipse dixit that the proper test was a reading of the book in its entirety in terms of how it would affect “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 … ”
Sitting as the trier of fact, Woolsey thus had the unenviable task of offering himself as the barometer of whether Ulysses excited lustful thoughts. Even the valiant Woolsey paled at this prospect. Instead, in an extraordinary departure from the notion that the advocates have a full opportunity to present their cases to the decision-maker ‑ Woolsey reported what was, in effect, the combined decision of himself and two friends. His carefully hedged report avoided the question whether and to what extent any of the three had been stimulated to lustful thoughts in the course of duty. Instead, the report was that “in its entirety” the “net effect” of Ulysses was not “to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts … ”
Woolsey’s opinion was vulnerable to an argument that, whatever the “net effect” of Ulysses, it contained specific passages that were obscene, and that the book thus ran afoul of the statute under the traditional Hicklin rule, as adopted in Bennett. The new United States Attorney, Martin Conboy, made exactly that argument in appealing Woolsey’s decision to the Court of Appeals.
Conboy had no trouble convincing Judge Martin Manton, whose dissenting opinion rhetorically inquired “[w]ho can doubt the obscenity of this book after a reading of the pages referred to, which are too indecent to add as a footnote to this opinion?” Unfortunately for Conboy and the prosecution, the two other members of the three-judge panel were Learned Hand, who had questioned the soundness of the Hicklin rule twenty years previously in Kennerley, and his cousin Augustus Hand, two wonderfully educated judges of robust intellect and trenchant pen. Learned Hand’s private pre-conference memorandum to his fellow judges, now available in the Harvard Law School library, gives us an unvarnished insight into his thinking. The core of his view was that some passages of the novel were undeniably obscene, but “the offending passages are clearly necessary to the epic of the soul as Joyce conceived it, and the parts which might be occasion for lubricity in the reader are to my way of thinking not sufficient to condemn a very notable contribution to literature”. Seeking to write an opinion that would not be mined for quotable phrases, the two Hands recognised that Learned should not be the author.
Writing for the two-judge majority, Augustus Hand quickly showed his appreciation for Woolsey’s reliance on Joyce’s technique. Hand identified Joyce “as a pioneer” of the “‘stream of consciousness’ method of presenting fiction” which “attempts to depict the thoughts and lay bare the souls of a number of people … with a literalism that leaves nothing unsaid”. Then, in one of those touches that makes judging an art, Hand, with an eye on precedents that permitted a greater range of candour in scientific works, framed “[t]he question before us” as “whether such a book of artistic merit and scientific insight should be regarded as ‘obscene’ within section 305(a) of the Tariff Act”. Molly would have been proud to see her insight labelled scientific.
With characteristic candour, Hand conceded “[t]hat numerous long passages in Ulysses contain matter that is obscene under any fair definition of the word cannot be gainsayed; yet they are relevant to the purpose of depicting the thoughts of the characters and are introduced to give meaning to the whole, rather than to promote lust or portray filth for its own sake”.
Again meeting the prosecution head on, Hand observed that “it is argued that United States v Bennett … stands in the way of what has been said, and it certainly does”. Exercising his power as an appellate judge, Hand simply interred Bennett as departed dogma. Citing his opinion in United States v Dennett that works of physiology, medicine, science and sex instruction are not within the statute, though to some extent and among some persons they may tend to promote lustful thoughts, Hand concluded that “[w]e think the same immunity should apply to literature as to science, where the presentation, when viewed objectively, is sincere, and the erotic matter is not introduced to promote lust and does not furnish the dominant note of the publication”.
By focusing on the quality of Joyce’s novel as literature, and creating a presumptive dichotomy between literature and obscenity, the Ulysses decision fundamentally altered the law of obscenity. At the same stroke, the decision created a significant role for literary criticism in obscenity trials by holding that, in determining whether obscenity is the dominant note of the publication, the trier of fact is to be guided by the “relevancy of the objectionable parts to the theme” and “the established reputation of the work in the estimation of approved critics … ”. In affirming Woolsey’s decision that Ulysses was not obscene, the court relied on the fact that “Ulysses is rated as a book of considerable power by persons whose views are entitled to weight”.
Conboy urged his superiors in the Department of Justice to seek discretionary review by the Supreme Court, but they declined. The voyage of Ulysses through the courts thus came to an end. Several conclusions can be drawn:
First, a successful voyage was by no means assured. Witness the initial failure, and the dissent of Judge Manton, whose views were probably more representative of the general run of the judiciary than those of the more liberal-thinking Hands.
Second: nonetheless, as evidenced by the acquittal of the seller of Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin in 1918, the verdict in favour of Jurgen in 1922, and the Halsey departure from Hicklin the same year, the building blocks for a successful defence were available at the time of the 1921 trial of Anderson and Heap. What was needed was an unbiased lawyer committed to literature’s right to be heard.
Third, the lawyers tended to be cautious, arguing the case somewhere short of the level of the major premise. Although Ezra Pound had urged Quinn that obscenity statutes were “unconstitutional from a Jeffersonian point of view”, it would not be until 1957 that the United States Supreme Court would hold in the Roth case that the principle of free speech animating the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects a book that excites sexual desire so long as the book is not “utterly without redeeming social importance”, a position approaching, if not wholly adopting, Anderson and Heap’s view that literature could not be obscene. In defence of the general caution of the lawyers, it is worth remembering that the initial reaction of many established writers was also cautious, to the point of hostility. DH Lawrence thought Ulysses the dirtiest, most obscene thing ever written. Virginia Woolf found it “underbred”, the work of a “self-taught working man” or of a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples”. To her credit, before herself adopting the idea of describing Mrs Dalloway’s stream of consciousness on a single day in June, she conceded that Joyce’s novel had “genius, I think, though full of stunts”. Edmund Gosse thought Joyce “a literary charlatan of the extremest order” and Ulysses “infamous in taste, in style, in everything”. Katherine Mansfield couldn’t “get over the feeling of wet linoleum and unemptied pails and far worse horrors in the house of his mind”. Shaw thought Ulysses “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation”, albeit “a truthful one”. Even those who praised the work, like Eliot, tended to ignore its strong erotic current in favour of technical or structural themes. WB Yeats was a partial exception. He wrote to Quinn that the first chapters in The Little Review “surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time”, but later confessed that a partial reading of the rest left him hating it when he dipped in and out but impressed to the extent ‑ admittedly limited ‑ that he read it in the right order, in which case he found in it “our Irish cruelty and also our kind of strength”. In general, the early writer-readers were no more anxious than lawyers and judges to confront Ulysses head on.
Fourth: even so, lawyer Quinn suffered defects greater than caution. He lacked the personal conviction to force the courts to confront the right of Ulysses to be heard. Moreover, his unpardonable bias against Anderson and Heap and his antipathy to their enterprise disqualified him for the fundamentally important task of protecting their right to publish. Joyce’s biographers, Ellmann and Bowker, John Butler Yeats’s biographer, William Murphy, and Quinn’s own biographer, BL Reid, have deferred to Quinn’s judgment that the case against Anderson and Heap was unwinnable. But Quinn thought the same thing about the case against Jurgen in 1920 and he turned out to be wrong when his successor as counsel proved victorious two years later. Without hindsight or speculation, it is possible to say that the arguments that Quinn did advance were poor ones, and unworthy of Ulysses and Joyce.
Fifth: tellingly, Quinn knew that there were better arguments than the ones he advanced. In a letter to Shane Leslie the year after the adverse Ulysses decision he articulated the argument that would ultimately carry the day in Judge Woolsey’s decision more than a decade later. Quinn’s letter anticipates Woolsey ‑ and echoes John Butler Yeats ‑ in saying that “[t]here is no humbug in Ulysses, no pretense about morality … There are the facts and the dialogues, simple, unadorned, unashamed, without sentiment and without sentimentality. An orgy of thought and speech and action fused into a work of art by the inspiration of a man of genius.” Quinn probably said something similar in a memorandum he submitted to the Solicitor of the United States Post Office in June 1919, arguing against post office suppression of an earlier issue of The Little Review containing an earlier episode of Ulysses. The National Archives’ copy of Quinn’s memorandum was destroyed and no copy has been located, but we know that Anderson, who disapproved of Quinn’s handling of the trial, thought his memorandum to the Solicitor a “magnificent defense”. Ezra Pound thought it “the best apologia for [Joyce] that has been written” and Eliot found it admirable and was prepared to publish it in The Egoist. Quinn declined to permit publication. He claimed that it was written too hastily and that he lacked time to revise it. The fact is that he shrank from using the defence that would ultimately succeed, and declined to be associated with that defence in public. His prejudice against Anderson and Heap, and his reluctance to be publicly identified as a champion of what, in a letter to Pound, he called “sex literature”, were a disservice to both law and literature. Fortunately, other lawyers, judges and critics did justice to Ulysses and Joyce.
Sixth, the federal decisions in the Ulysses case contributed significantly to a maturing of the American law of obscenity, and, after the book had been published in England, the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 incorporated the essence of the Ulysses decision into English law. The argument that carried the day in Ulysses was the compelling one that regard for truth itself requires that Joyce’s terrible veracity be heard. That argument had its roots in the fictional reverie of Molly Bloom. Plato was right: fictions subvert orthodoxies.