A Secret Purchase in Paris
Dateline: Paris 1960. Your correspondent, moi (this is Paris, France, not Paris, Lamar County, Texas), wanders into a bookstore on the Rive Gauche. He purchases a copy of Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," a book outlawed in the U.S. The people who run HBO were not yet born. Puerile youngster correspondent wraps the book in plain brown paper (not a bag) and packs it in the bottom of his suitcase under his underwear. Despite the absence of salacious or enticing blurbs on the cover or lurid descriptions in essays about Miller's literary oeuvre, the allure at that time to own a copy of "Tropic of Cancer" was simply that it was banned.
Your correspondent did not purchase James Joyce's "Ulysses" in the bookstore. Why would he? In 1933, "Ulysses" was no longer banned in the U.S. District Court Judge John M. Woolsey, in a decision that reflected thoughtful legal analysis and discerning literary criticism, ruled that "Ulysses" was not obscene. I urge you to read the entire decision. (U.S. v. One Book Called "Ulysses" 5 F.Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1933).) Here are some passages:
"I have read 'Ulysses' once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times. In fact, for many weeks, my spare time has been devoted to the consideration of the decision which my duty would require me to make in this matter.
"'Ulysses' is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of 'Ulysses' is, therefore, a heavy task.
"The reputation of 'Ulysses' in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, — that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity. [¶] …
"In writing 'Ulysses,' Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the City bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while.
"Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man's observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.
"What he seeks to get is not unlike the result of a double or, if that is possible, a multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.
"To convey by words an effect which obviously lends itself more appropriately to a graphic technique, accounts, it seems to me, for much of the obscurity which meets a reader of 'Ulysses.' And it also explains another aspect of the book, which I have further to consider, namely, Joyce's sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.
"If Joyce did not attempt to be honest in developing the technique which he has adopted in 'Ulysses' the result would be psychologically misleading and thus unfaithful to his chosen technique. Such an attitude would be artistically inexcusable. [¶] …
"'Ulysses' may, therefore, be admitted into the United States." (PP. 183-185.)
JOHN M. WOOLSEY
United States District Judge
United States District Judge
The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. I trust the appellate panel read "Ulysses" with the care given by Judge Woolsey.
One particular paragraph of Judge Woolsey's decision caught my attention in light of certain phenomena occurring on college campuses.
It has been reported that students are requesting their professors to post warnings about potentially offensive works of literature they have been assigned to read. This caught me by surprise. Literature is still taught in universities? In kindergarten, kids with pushy parents are planning their careers in scientific, technical and business fields, in the hope of making a living. But for the literature courses offered, I can see on the cover of "Hamlet": "Warning! Contains scenes of violence, poisoning, murder and mayhem." "Pride and Prejudice": "Warning! Contains refined language, exemplary grammar, and cultivated manners."
Judge Woolsey's penultimate paragraph would be a good warning for "Ulysses." Woolsey wrote: "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." (P. 185.)
Students with queasy stomachs could take Pepto-Bismol before diving into "Ulysses."
How ironic that with more freedom of expression some students seek to curb freedom of expression. Literature goads us into thinking about the human condition, our culture and the world. It may and often does make us uncomfortable and it challenges us to question our prejudices and preconceptions. It gives us insight, makes us more complete human beings, and enables us to better excel in all our endeavors.
And this takes me back to the "Tropic of Cancer" and other writings of Henry Miller. There is much to admire in his works. But his writing can be rambling, and I do not care for his demeaning portrayals of women. That does not mean he should not be read. His graphic descriptions, in fact, could compel readers to champion equality for women. By happenstance, I came to know a few of Miller's women friends, including his ex-wife. They all spoke of him with such tenderness and affection. Apparently women fared better in his real life than they did in his novels.
It was not until 1964, the year I was admitted to practice law in California, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled "Tropic of Cancer" was not obscene. But four years earlier, your correspondent and his copy of "Tropic of Cancer" got through customs. And then I attended law school. When I tired of reading "Williston on Contracts," I read a chapter or two of "Tropic of Cancer." More lively than promissory estoppel.
Postscript. A favor: If the statute of limitations has not run, please keep the incident about my purchase in Paris under your hat.