Bloomsday: Court finds Ulysses obscene

0 0 0 0 0
Republish
Reprint
Waiting for the trial to begin

How It’s New York: In 1921, the obscenity trial over Ulysses took place in NYC. In 2012, the mock obscenity trial of “New York State vs. Anderson and Heap” also took place in NYC: in the Supreme Court Ceremonial Courtroom on Centre Street, courtesy of the Irish American Bar Association of New York.
How It’s Irish: James Joyce was Irish, though the publishers here were not. But the presentation was put on by the Irish-American NYC bar, and they brought in Justice Adrian Hardiman, of the Supreme Court of Ireland. Consul General Noel Kilkenny was also in attendance.

This is the fourth year the Irish-American Bar Association has had a Bloomsday event. This one took place on Friday, the day before Bloomsday itself (June 16, on the day when all the events in Ulysses take place). Those who weren’t at the luncheon at the Consulate were here.

The full background to the story can be found here on Wikipedia (I’d give you the Irish-American Bar Association site, but it has some kind of infection that leads to a redirect to Google when you click on it). Basically what it boils down to is that before the novel was published in 1922, it was published in serial form in a journal called The Little Review from 1918 – 1920. This plucky little journal was put out by two women, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson who were lovers and who, we learned at the mock trial, were eager to be “caught” so they could make the case for Art.
They were disappointed, though, because their defense lawyer, John Quinn, would not let them speak. He defended the novel on the grounds that it was incomprehensible, and therefore would not be able to corrupt anybody.
JnaeAnne Murray
What we were actually in for, in the Courthouse, was a play. It was tremendous fun, although it was over-airconditioned in the building, and the echoey nature of the grand room occasionally made it difficult to understand what was being said or read. It’s a great old American story– desire for notoriety, for your day in court, willingness to go to bat for a cause. The publishers lost this one, and were fined $50. But Ulysses won 12 years later, when, in 1933, a case was brought the book for obscenity, and Justice John M.Woolsey decided that it was not obscene. In future editions of the book, Woolsey’s decision was reprinted in full.
Before the reenactment began, Janet Walsh and JaneAnne Murray, who played Anderson and Walsh, in period costume with big old hats, gave out facismile editions of The Little Review, the July-August 1920 edition.On its cover it calls itself “A magazine of the arts”, “Making no compromise with the public taste.”
It was a very nice touch. The back of the photocopied pages even included period adds, for “The Stradivarius of Pianos,” Mason & Hamlin Co., that were once at 313 Fifth Avenue, and a notice that read “Owing to the deplorable state of the paper market we are forced to make this a double number.”
Consul General Noel Kilkenny
Consul General Noel Kilkenny spoke first, described Bloomsday in China, and marvelling that although the book has come to be synonymous with Ireland, not one word of it was actually written there. Next Domhnall O’Cathain, president of IABANY, spoke, first in Irish, and then in English, thanking everyone for coming and giving us some background.

Justice Hardiman then delivered “the John Quinn Memorial Address,” titled “James Joyce – The Frustrated Lawyer.” Hardiman told us how the obscenity trial was really set up by the defendants, and how they had arranged for a copy of the chapter called “Cyclops” to be sent to the Head of NYC Prevention of Vice, “a very busy man I imagine,” said Hardiman.

Hardiman let us know the book was never banned in England, although there were some complaints. “It was never banned in Ireland, for quite different reaons: nobody was interested in it,” he said.

It was quite fascinating to see that Joyce, along with many references to music, religion, food, also showed great detail about law: he included references to 32 court cases in the book. Hardiman said that 18 were criminal trials. There are also 11 named judges, with more unnamed; 13 barristers and 11 solicitors, “and lots and lots of life insurance policies. Joyce was fascinated by it, and that you could mortgage a life insurance policy.”

One rather famous case described in the book was Mr. Child’s murder case, Hardiman said. He read a section from the book that showed how Mr. Bloom’s stream of consciousness mixed in with what was happening around it.

“The cases in the book are all doubtful cases, with guilt and innocence very finely balanced,” Hardiman pointed out. The case had been build on circumstantial evidence that evaporated in court. Joyce, Hardiman said, was “educated by Jesuits, and fascinated by epistomlogy, that is, you you know what you know.”

Justice Adrian Hardiman
Is the book obscene? Yes, in the literal Latin sense of things that are hidden, Hardiman said. While Bloom thinks about sex in great detail, Hardiman pointed out that the book also goes into every detail of Bloom’s morning ablustions.  Picking up the book, Hardiman said that with the size of the volume, “a schoolboy going through it looking for the obscene bits would have improved his vocabulary a good deal.”

Then, as O’Cathan said, it was “back to your dayjob” for Hardiman, who put on his black robe and prepared to preside.

JaneAnne Murray introduced the reenactment, calling Bloomsday “The thinking woman’s St. Patrick’s Day.” Murray is a criminal defense lawyer in NYC, and also Practitioner in Residence at the University of Minnesota Law School (she had apparently flown in the day before), as well as a principal organizer of the event and co-author of the reenactment.
Becayse the trial took place during the prohibition era, Murray said, they were only serving soda in the back.
Murray pointed out a comment that Jane Heap had written that still feels all too poignant: 

“The society for the prevention of vice was founded to protect the public from corruption. When we ask what public, they invariably reply our young girls. So the mind of our young girls rule this country? Why is she given such representatives?” A photograph of senators, Heap wrote, was “a galaxy of noble manhood” that showed in its faces “where it had spat, and gossipped, and stolen prunes.”

Janet Walsh, who was playing Margaret Anderson and was also a co-organizer of the event, explained that there was no actual transcript of the trial though there were memoirs, diaries, and letters about it. She said that John Quinn, who defended the women, “took it on pro bono and he was not enamored of it.” The women’s serialization of the book made the defense harder, because it prevented the argument that a certain section had to be viewed in context.
The women, Walsh said, wanted to be prosecuted, but had to sit meekly. In the reenactment, in true Joycean fashion, they would share with us some of their streams of consciousness.

JnaeAnne Murray
Prosecutor Joseph Forrester. played by James Cullen, opened by saying “what brings us here is pure depravity,” heaping scorn on the “theatre types” and a “degenerate Irishman.”
As Chief Judge Frederic Kernochan, Hardiman replied “Mr. Quinn, I know you to be a connoisseur of creative art, are you here defending filth?
Quinn, played by Walter Lesnevich in a white suit, began extolling Joyce as a “colossus of creative writing, dominating our age…” when he was interrupted by Cullen saying the journals had been seized by the postal service.
Quinn: The U.S. Postal service, there’s an arbiter of taste.
Cullen: Founded by Ben Franklin.

Quinn: who was quite filthy.

… nice humor from the authors. Then Quinn got into the crux of his argument by saying that the book could not be called filthy because “that would imply it it is accessible. It is not. It is one of the most incomprehensible books every published.”
The prosecutor then called, as his witness, the book itself. What this meant was terrific entertainment: actress Laoisa Sexton, a pretty blonde, doing a bang-up job reading the “Nausicca” section. She was intense, funny  and undeniably sexy. I caught the policeman (or bailiff?) who had been just glancing at the program from time to time, no doubt to see how much longer this was going to last, staring at her, at first bemused, then fascinated. The cop looked very happy when she got up later to read Molly’s soliloquy. Nothing like a little sex to wake everyone up.
The Cast of “New York State vs. Anderson and Heap”
Called to testify on the book’ behalf was Philip Moeller, one of the founders of The Theatre Guild. Actor Wally Marzano-Lesevich, who also helped research the reenactment, was quite funny as an extroverted, self-promiting and rather naive theatre man. Clearly, he’s met a few of these.
Overall, the Irish American Bar Association of New York’s Bloomsday Celebration of 2012 was a thoroughly enjoyable dramatic entertainment: sure of itself, sure of its audience, well paced, and well acted (I even enjoyed the mugging).
It was a great way to kick off the silly yet intellectual holiday of Bloomsday.
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts