July 2014

Josh Cook


Dangerous Books: From Banning Ulysses to Challenging Huck Finn

When Bennett A. Cerf, the publisher of Random House, acquired the U.S. rights to Ulysses, a fraught odyssey detailed in Kevin Birmingham's fascinating book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, Cerf risked jail time for distributing the novel. "The 1873 Comstock Act made the distribution of any 'obscene lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, print, or other publication of indecent character' through the U.S. mail punishable by up to ten years in prison and a ten-thousand dollar fine, and state laws throughout the country... extended the ban to obscenity's publication and sale." The 1917 Espionage Act greatly expanded the speech that could be controlled to include "using language that might provoke draft dodging or military insubordination." The law was extended again "to criminalize any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States." "In 1918, the law stipulated that the solicitor general of the Post Office held the final authority to judge dangerous words, ban publications, and begin criminal prosecutions over anything obscene or treasonous sent through the mail." So when Joyce was trying to publish Ulysses in the U.S., if the solicitor general of the post office, or any of his agents, believed a word of the work was obscene, blasphemous, or treasonous, it was illegal to import, send through the mail, or sell to the general public. At best, that would mean destroyed copies and lost money for Cerf, or any other publisher, and at worst jail time and fines. Often, government intercession wasn't even required to censor books and publications. As Birmingham points out, "[t]he climate of suppression had a chilling effect throughout the publishing industry" and "fighting the [New York Society for the Suppression of Vice's] standards meant risking an expensive legal battle to sell a book whose profit margins were likely to be razor thin no matter what." Just the risk of government action was enough to change what printers, publishers, editors, and even writers produced. Then, as now, you can't eat your ideals. There was a legitimate chance a bowdlerized, lifeless, and far less important version of Ulysses, stripped and starved by fearful editors, publishers, and printers, would have been America's Ulysses.

How did the government determine a work's obscenity or treason-ness? When Ulysses first stood trial in the U.S., while being serialized in the radical magazine The Little Review, the Hicklin Rule "defined obscenity by a book's effect on society's most susceptible readers -- anyone with a mind 'open' to 'immoral influences.'" Essentially, if a judge, jury, or solicitor believed a passage, or even a single word in a book or article, regardless of context, could corrupt an innocent mind, the entire book or periodical was obscene and subject to prosecution and punishment under applicable obscenity law. So, if one innocent young girl could be influenced or offended by Gerty McDowell showing her underwear to Leopold Bloom, then Nausicaa was obscene, the entire issue of The Little Review containing it was obscene, and anything else Nausicaa might appear in would be obscene. A judge determined just that, and, until December 6, 1933, Ulysses was contraband in the United States.

There are many ways to the tell story of Ulysses between its first trial and its last, of its transformation from contraband to classic, and one of them is how the Hicklin Rule transformed from accepted to jurisprudence to unnamed ideological impulse. Though they probably don't use the term, the Hicklin Rule is the conceptual justification for much contemporary book censorship. According to the American Library Association, "A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content appropriateness." Sometimes "appropriateness" considers the book as a whole but often, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is challenged because the narrator praises masturbation, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because the word "nigger" appears, and Beloved because of a sex scene. All are textbook applications of the Hicklin Rule. If a book has one dirty word, scene celebrating human sexuality, or character taking illegal drugs, and someone's innocent child might learn that dirty word or think about sex or drugs, then the book itself must be controlled.

But there is a difference between parents challenging books and the Unites States federal government banning them. A challenged book isn't automatically removed from the public library, school library, or school curriculum. Even when a challenge is successful, it only affects the book in a specific school district or library system. A successful challenge can't stop a teenager, parent, or other citizen from buying the book, nor can it punish a bookseller for selling it, arrest a citizen for distributing it, or prevent the post office from delivering it. Another story of Ulysses is the story of "banning" becoming "challenging."

The idea of controlling obscene literature is a difficult concept for a democratic society, based in enlightenment principles, with a fundamental belief in the freedom of political expression, to apply. After all, the United States was founded, in part, through words provoking illicit actions. And, of course, someone had to read the work to discover its obscenity, which meant that even the most obsessive censors believed some people (rich, educated, white, old men, of course) were immune to the virus of obscene words. Obscenity trials, then, acknowledged the potential for immunity, while reconciling, as much as possible, newer principles of democracy with an older dogmatic society in which behavior was restricted by a supreme power in the form of a monarch, a "god" or both. The Hicklin Rule smoothed these internal conflicts by basing every trial around the rubric of an imagined innocent consciousness. But that created its own problem, ensuring that all generally available literature was rated PG. How could a society with such a low tolerance for ideas and expressions govern itself in a complex, R-rated, often obscene world?

The internal tension in the ideas of obscenity and censorship created what Birmingham calls the worst part of censorship. He writes,

the censorship regime was... maddeningly arbitrary. Books that circulated for years might be banned without warning. Customs officials might declare a book legal only to have the Post Office issue its own ban. A judge or jury could acquit a book one day and condemn it the next, and the text of the laws themselves stoked confusion. The New York law described criminal literature with what Ernst called the "six deadly adjectives": obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting -- lawmakers kept adding words when they updated the law. Multiplying the number of adjectives as a way to paper over the elusiveness of any given designation... and every one of those adjectives was subjective. (emphasis in original)

On top of the tension between a democratic political system and a Victorian social society (at least as society was administered by those in power), and no matter how much definition and codification is written into the law, ultimately, all obscenity decisions are based on individuals making subjective judgments about imagined consciousnesses.

This created a seam between dogmatic fears and the ideals and mechanisms of a large democratic society. Ulysses rent that seam. Extramarital sex. Defecation. Bondage. Sex changes. Blasphemy. Pornography. Anti-imperialism. Anti-nationalism. Anti-Aristotelian-narrativism. I mean, the female protagonist likes sex and tells us about it. By the letter of the law, Ulysses was obscene. Obviously, gratuitously, relentlessly obscene. Even ardent supporters like Ezra Pound and John Quinn tried to restrain the most blatantly objectionable parts. And yet, Ulysses was something different, something powerful, something unique, something that inspired people to commit, at the very least, the crime of publishing Ulysses. Birmingham quotes Sidney Huddleston calling Joyce "a man of genius," and describing Ulysses as "the vilest according to ordinary standards in all literature. And yet its very obscenity is somehow beautiful and wrings the soul to pity." Arnold Bennett called it "dazzlingly original." T.S. Elliott called it "a step toward making the modern world possible for art," and said it gave "a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy." Even readers who didn't enjoy Ulysses knew it was unique. Birmingham quotes Katherine Mansfield writing about Ulysses to a friend, "I can't get over the feeling of wet linoleum and unemptied pails and far worse horrors in the house of his mind," but later she says, "[b]ut there's something in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature." Ulysses was obscene. Ulysses was vital.

For all the blurbs and praise Ulysses garnered, only one endorsement mattered; the endorsement from Judge John M. Woolsey, federal district court judge in the Southern district of New York. He writes in his official decision, "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 residual of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious."

And, most importantly, "'Ulysses' may, therefore, be admitted into the United States." Another version of this story is told through remarkable individuals, starting with Nora Barnacle and ending with Judge Woolsey, who saw past the prejudices of their era to something approaching a universal humanism, and people like Sylvia Beach, Margaret Anderson, John Quinn, Bennett A. Cerf, and Morris Ernst, whose own visions were great enough to appreciate Joyce's. Like most social change, the obscenity regime would have eventually eroded through the force of its own contradictions, but Ulysses was not an act of erosion. It was an explosion, and the precedent it helped set, that art, by definition, cannot be obscene, allowed "Howl," Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch to bury whatever remained of state-sanctioned censorship.

The mechanism for censorship may be defanged, but its motivation remains. The arguments for censorship, whether structured around national security, protecting the innocent or defending against "offense," all stem from the idea that there is one correct way to organize human existence, and the act of critiquing or offering alternatives to that one right way is equivalent to a violent assault on that ideology and all who hold it. Even an idea as seemingly innocuous and empirically true, like the fact of teenage sexual identity, is subject to censure.

The role of fear in censorship is so obvious, discussing it in any depth doesn't interest me. From the Catholic Index, to the Espionage Act, to today's challenges, every act of censorship is an act of fear. More interesting to me because I haven't heard the point made, is the role of laziness in censorship. In theory, if your "American Way," or whatever, really was the "One Right Way," you would be able to defend it against all attackers. You could give competing ideas every advantage and still prove them lacking. You could let your teenagers read whatever they want and the healing glow of Christ's love (or whatever) would still triumph over the temptations of Satan's hordes (or whatever). Historically banned and contemporaneously challenged books, suggest, perhaps even more than fear, people who can't be bothered to defend their ideas or have awkward conversations with their teenagers.

There probably are good arguments for waiting until you're married to have sex, but rather than making those difficult, awkward, uncomfortable arguments with, as Louis C.K, says, "your shitty kids," book challengers attempt to remove the idea of premarital sex entirely from cultural discourse. Rather than risk losing an argument about guns in America, or the economics of the working poor, or the role of slavery and racism in American society, or masturbation, they try to prevent access to Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Beloved, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

As long as there is one unexpurgated copy of the book from which future copies can be made, censorship and challenges do not affect the book. They affect access poor people have to the book. If a rich, white man wanted a copy of Ulysses, he could have gotten it. He could have ordered one of the private subscriptions that were offered and paid off the customs officials to look the other way, he could have bought it from a high-end bookseller, or he could have gone to Paris and it's unlikely his luggage would have been searched on the way back. But no one else, not the working-class student wanting to better himself, or the curious middle manager, or (god forbid!) any women or minorities, could get a copy. Today, the problem is limited but persists. When a challenge is successful, anyone who can afford to buy the book has access to it. Those who can't afford it, don't. All modern challenging accomplishes, in terms of controlling literature, is restricting the reading lists of poor kids in the school district or library system.

The idea of censorship and dangerous books strains the seams of this essay. Even at this length, far more is left out of the story of Ulysses and dangerous books than is included; the sexism of censorship, the role of the Post Office, the interaction of patronage and capitalism, book piracy, courtroom drama, the mechanics of being offended, and the role of art in civil society. And everything I have included lacks some of its nuance. Since books are both transporters and transformers of culture, examining our relationship to them will entangle more general questions, aspects, and challenges of culture. In some ways, the act of censorship is a cultural mirror, revealing exactly what you fundamentally value and what you fundamentally don't.

The conflict between those who would censor books and those who would not rests on a shared principle, a fundamental idea about literature's threat to power structures, the awkward conversations it creates, and the critical thought it requires. A fact that makes all books, from recent classics like Beloved, to mass market entertainment like Twilight, to works of the American canon like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to Captain Underpants, a threat to dogma and dogmatic worldviews. An idea is a virus. It can infect people. It can change people. An idea can create distance between you and your children, between you and your peers, and between you and your community. An idea can make you uncomfortable in your life, dissatisfied with your culture, and critical of your society. And books are, still, the greatest carriers of ideas. Censors ban books and I celebrate them for the same reason; books change people.