Banned Books Awareness: “Ulysses”


\"\"The classic novel, “Ulysses,” by Irish author James Joyce, was published as a serial between 1918-1920, and then as a single volume in 1922 in France.  It celebrated its 90th birthday on February 2. Widely-regarded as one of the greatest novels of all time, it even initiated the creation of an international holiday, Bloomsday, celebrated annually on June 16th. It is a staple of many an English Literature course, much to the chagrin of students when they see the 800-page behemoth; but along the way to taking such a place in literary history, it’s also become one of the most controversial and frequently challenged.

The novel was once banned in the United States and the United Kingdom due to its strong sexual themes, and it’s not difficult to see why.

The story of Leopold Bloom’s struggle to come to terms with his wife Molly’s promiscuity includes scenes of masturbation and other imagery, and the novel closes with a 50-page rant from Molly describing her sexual history and carnal desires.

In 1920, after a U.S.magazine printed a passage of the book dealing with the main character masturbating, a group called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, objected to the book\’s content and took legal action to keep the book out of the United States. At a trial in 1921 a passage from it that was printed in a magazine was declared obscene and Ulysses was banned in the United States. Two women, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were found guilty of obscenity at the trial and fined $50 each for “corrupting the public morals.”

Throughout the 1920’s copies of the book were burned in the U.S. (1918), Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), England (1923); and officially banned in England (1929-1947).

The ACLU filed suit in the famous 1933 case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, and won when U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled on December 6, 1933 that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in 1934.

It wasn’t until that landmark censorship ruling, a decade after its publication, that the book legally debut in the U. S. The ruling stated that the novel successfully portrayed each character’s “stream of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions.”

Social mores about sex may have relaxed in the years since, but Ulysses remains at the top of book banning lists, coming in at number 6 on the ALA’s list of the 100 most-challenged classics.

Noteworthy actions against Ulysses didn’t just end in the 1930’s, though. While the courts decided long ago that there wasn’t anything illegal in its lustful narrative, Apple had other ideas in 2010 when it decided that the digital comic adaption was unsuitable for sale in the App Store because it contained depictions of nude scenes.

The Apple Store has always danced the line of contradictions and double standards when it comes to apps, music, and movies. Never mind that they aren’t required to ban such material, it’s available to view through their own web browser. So a digital graphic novel adaption of Ulysses is bad, but anyone with access to the store can download the unedited and uncensored version of Scarface without as much as a pop up warning. Yeah, that makes sense.

Maybe there will come a day where books are no longer banned because of the illogical and ideological rhetoric of the closed-minded. On that day there will no longer be a need for the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project. Until that day, however, don’t just celebrate your First amendment right- practice it and read a book- any book- and maybe even a banned book or two.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: American Library Association, Wikipedia, Huffington Post
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep ForestProductions