In February 1921, a New York court convicted Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap of obscenity and fined them $50 each for publishing an excerpt from Ulysses in their low-circulation literary magazine. They had no money, so someone else paid the fines. Later, Anderson regretted not going to jail instead. Heap took the long view. “The only question relevant at all to Ulysses is–Is it a work of Art?” she wrote. It took thirty-six years for the law to come around. Beginning in 1957, the Supreme Court posed Heap’s question in deciding the scope of First Amendment protection for descriptions of sex in works of art. Heap died in 1964 and Anderson in 1973. Each remains unpardoned for the crime of publishing parts of the greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century. In this 125th anniversary of Joyce’s birth, it’s time to expunge the record.
With almost no funds, Anderson, then 28, started The Little Review in Chicago in 1914. Heap joined her in 1916, and they moved the magazine to New York a year later. They published good poets and writers, the already famous and the not yet famous: Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams among them. And they published excerpts from the yet unfinished Ulysses, which Pound, their European editor, got from Joyce and forwarded. In her disjointed autobiography, Anderson described her reaction on receiving the first excerpt: “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have, I cried. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives.” It wasn’t. Serialization of Ulysses, which began in March 1918, continued to December 1920. There were problems at the post office, which burned some issues, but that was nothing you couldn’t deal with if you were dedicated to great literature, which Anderson and Heap were.
The conviction of Anderson and Heap delayed American publication of Ulysses for a dozen years after Joyce completed it, in 1921. Personal and financial risks were too great. Until the young Bennett Cerf appeared in 1932 with his new company, Random House, represented by civil liberties lawyer Morris Ernst, no one would chance publication despite Joyce’s growing reputation or the fact that in February 1922, Sylvia Beach published Ulysses in France (in English) through her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, without incident and with good sales, amounting to eleven editions in the ensuing decade. Within weeks, smuggled copies of the French edition were selling for $50 in New York.
No matter. In the summer of 1922 John Quinn, a prominent and politically connected New York lawyer, told Harriet Shaw Weaver, Joyce’s British benefactor, that “Ulysses, unexpurgated, unchanged, cannot be published in the United States without the certainty of prosecution and conviction.” This was partly his fault. Quinn, a friend of Joyce, Yeats and Pound, reluctantly defended Anderson and Heap in court. He disliked his clients and didn’t want the case. He was certain he would lose and did. If he had been less certain, he might have won.
Anderson and Heap had invited trouble when, in search of readers, they mailed unsolicited copies of the July/August 1920 issue to potential subscribers. The issue contained a part of the novel’s “Nausicaa” episode, which finds Leopold Bloom on the beach not far from a young woman, Gerty MacDowell. Satirizing romance fiction, Joyce wrote:
She leaned back far to look up where the fireworks were and she caught her knee in her hands so as not to fall back looking up and there was no one to see only him and her when she revealed all her graceful beautifully shaped legs like that, supply soft and delicately rounded, and she seemed to hear the panting of his heart, his hoarse breathing, because she knew about the passion of men like that…