What makes a book “dirty”?

The most famous banned book I know of is ULYSSES, by James Joyce.  These days it’s considered a monumental work of Modernist Literature, with capital letters and everything.  When it first came out, as a serial production during the first World War, it was considered the dirtiest of all possible books.  In those days, America was infested with “anti-vice” societies, dedicated to preserving the purity of the American mind.  They made sure that ULYSSES was branded as “obscene”.  Anyone selling a copy of this seminal (in all senses of that word) work could be prosecuted under the law and jailed.  The same risk applied to importing copies from France, where it was first published — though in the English language.  Eventually matters came to a head in 1934, when Random House, led by its publisher, Bennet Cerf, decided that enough was enough.  They announced their intention to publish an American edition of the book.  The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice immediately brought suit against them on the basis of existing laws, and the case ended up in federal court.

What were the laws in question?  They may surprise you.  The direct law challenged was the Tariff Act of 1930, which criminalized the importation of any “obscene book” into the United States.  The case therefore rested on the definition of obscene.  At the time, the legal definition of obscenity, as handed down in many and various court rulings was, and I quote from the opinion of the judge in the trial, John Woolsey, “tending to stir the sex impulses or lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.”

Things have changed, eh?  Under this definition, an awful lot of books and TV shows are obscene, including a high percentage of Romances.  MTV videos?  The anti-vice crusaders must be rolling in their graves!  They certainly were furious over Judge Woolsey’s decision, that no, ULYSSES did not fall under this legal definition.  Anyone who actually had read the book could have told them that.  You know what?  It’s meant to be funny.  And it is, LOL worthy in spots.  Anti-vice crusaders, then as now, however tend to be a bit lacking in the sense of humor department.

Woolsey himself missed the humor.  If you have time, and can find it online, you might want to read his decision — an amazing example of the snobbery of his time.  As an educated, upper-class American, he looks down his long nose at the doings of those “people of a certain class”, as he calls them, who populate the book.  Be that as it may, Random House did publish Joyce’s masterwork, and in my opinion, we’re all better off for it.

Katharine Kerr has written too many odd books in various genres.  Her science fiction novel, POLAR CITY BLUES, is available as a BookViewCafe ebook.


About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.


What makes a book “dirty”? — 9 Comments

  1. I should repost my review of the movie HYPATIA. The main event of that one, aside from the lynching of the title character, was the burning of the library of Alexandria. Horrifying, because now we know what was lost forever. The burners of course didn’t think that way at all.

  2. If only Liz Williams’ book Worldsoul was true, and librarian time travelers from a nexus came back and snatched the Library before it could be burned!

    I think I’m going to have to try Ulysses. Humorous, eh?

  3. Pingback: WWW Wednesday (October 3, 2012) | planetpooks.com

  4. Bennett Cerf.

    What a blast from the past, especially as I truly only knew him as a tv personality.

    You’ve convinced me to read Ulysses. I’m tempted to spring for the annotated book, but it’s expensive. Which hasn’t ever stopped me before, I must admit.