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And hooray for those footnotes

Today fans will celebrate James Joyce’s massive Ulysses, a book that many of them almost never had a chance to read.

Published June 16, 2006

Today — June 16 — is Bloomsday, the date in 1904 in which James Joyce set the action in his monumental novel Ulysses.

Every year for at least the last half-century, fans of the nearly 800-page tome have gathered in sometimes literary, more often raucous, celebrations of Joyce’s tale of 24 hours in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom.

Hailed as a new kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative, Joyce’s work marked the start of the modern era in English literature. It’s also a famously tough read, one that Americans very nearly didn’t get a crack at when the forces of public virtue declared it obscene.

Which makes Bloomsday a good time not just for Guinness and kidneys but to remember a landmark legal decision, one that is considerably easier to read than the book whose merit it upheld.

After Ulysses was serialized in the New York-based Little Review from 1918 to 1920, outrage over the novel’s language and sexual references got it banned in 1921. Twelve years later, faced with a legal challenge to the ban, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey delivered a ruling that is a model of both jurisprudence and literary criticism. Here is a brief excerpt; you can find it unabridged in the Random House edition of Ulysses.

Floridian editor


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? . . .

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.

Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines, Web sites and other sources. The text may be edited for space but the original spelling, grammar and punctuation are unchanged.

[Last modified June 16, 2006, 10:23:10]

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