By Joseph M. Hassett
Joe Hassett combines the skills of trial lawyer and literary scholar to tell as it’s never been told before the story of the clash between James Joyce’s Ulysses and the law of obscenity. In what is probably the most important, least understood episode in the perennial struggle between law and literature, Joyce’s novel was adjudged obscene in one trial in 1921, but exonerated in another a dozen years later. Hassett’s comparison of the two sheds new light on these epoch-transforming events and their implications for the never-ending struggle to overcome censorship of prescient works of the imagination.
Above all, this is a story of remarkable people, especially John Butler Yeats, who saw that the objection to Joyce arose from the fact that his “terrible veracity, naked and unashamed” interfered with the public’s desire to live comfortably and thus superficially. Yeats, father of the poet, handed this argument to John Quinn, lawyer for Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, who faced criminal charges for publishing what Anderson regarded as the most beautiful thing she and her partner would ever have the opportunity to publish, and uttered the eerily prophetic vow, “We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives.” Quinn, generous and able, but reluctant to be known as a champion of sex literature, ignored the powerful justifications Yeats, Anderson and Heap handed him in favor of tawdry and cynical arguments unworthy of Joyce’s great novel. Anderson and Heap were convicted of a crime and publication was halted, but arguments based on the societal importance of truth and beauty in literature eventually prevailed in the second trial in 1934.
From the Foreword by Roy Foster: Hassett’s “combination of literary insight and legal dexterity…makes his book …an original and subtly entertaining contribution to the history of modernist culture.”
Published by Lilliput Press. For details, see lilliputpress.ie/product/the-ulysses-trials.
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