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The Ulysees Trials: Buffalo native tells story of law, literature and lust

It's difficult to imagine anyone with better life preparation to tell the dramatic story behind the obscenity trials of James Joyce's 1922 novel "Ulysees" than Buffalo native Joseph M. Hassett.

Hassett, author of "The 'Ulysees' Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law," is a leading trial lawyer with the international firm of Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C. He's also a literary critic who has devoted his life to reading, writing about and promoting the work of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and many other Irish writers.

To complete the triangular linkage, Hassett's hometown, with which he maintains strong ties, is both an unexpected hotbed of modern Irish literature and culture and the repository of the comprehensive and internationally consulted James Joyce Collection.

"The Ulysees Trials" starts with vivid descriptions of the people involved in the controversy. They begin with Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, partners in life and in the publication of the magazine The Little Review, which began to serialize Joyce's novel in 1918. In 1920, Joyce's lyrically suggestive and occasionally slyly evocative but by no means obscene writing, published in The Little Review, ran afoul of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Anderson and Heap engaged an Irish-American lawyer named John Quinn, who had defended them in a previous case and was a patron of the magazine, which published Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein and many more. Although a bit of a ladies' man who once had his eye on Anderson, Quinn had a horror of  being identified as a 'free smut, free sex advocate."

So rather than argue, as John Butler Yeats (W.B.'s father) and Anderson and Heap recommended, that brilliant literature must not be constrained by prudishness, Quinn argued that Joyce's work was not obscene because it was incomprehensible. According to the New York Times, Quinn told the court that the challenge of Joyce's work "was principally a matter of punctuation marks," which Joyce did not use, "probably on account of his eyesight."

Hassett ventured into the mass of testimony, letters and rulings, which fully documented the court cases until the book was cleared and published in the United States in 1933.

Hassett grew up in Buffalo and is a Canisius College graduate. He credits "the incomparable Charles A. Brady," Buffalo News literary critic for five decades and longtime English professor at Canisius, as being "a strong thread in the net encircling Buffalo and Irish literature ...  Charlie’s writing for the News gave all of Western New York the opportunity to drink in his appreciation of Irish literature, much as I did when happily taking  his courses."

In 1963, thanks to a scholarship set up by Monsigor Leo Toomey, Hassett attended the Fourth Annual Yeats Summer School in Sligo, followed by the summer program at University College Dublin.

In an email interview, Hassett, the author of two previous books on W.B. Yeats, discussed his new work.

Q: Can you imagine how your life would have been different without that summer of 1963?

A: Without that magical impetus, I doubt I would have the profoundly enriching experience I’ve had through my relationship with Ireland, its culture and its people. The friendships Ireland and its literature have brought me are  the source of endless pleasure and the literature itself begets constant renewal. I again think of Yeats, who wrote,  “Man is like a musical instrument of many strings, of which only a few are sounded by the narrow interests of his daily life; and the others, for want of use, are continually becoming tuneless and forgotten."

Q: You have maintained a devotion to the cultural life of the region, including your family's sponsorship of the annual Hassett Reading, part of the Canisius College Contemporary Writers Series.

A: I left Buffalo for Harvard Law School in 1964  but have returned often for a variety of reasons, including family connections and 14 years as a Trustee of Canisius College and regular involvement in the Canisius Contemporary Writers series. I co-sponsored Vincent O’Neill’s innovative production of two Yeats plays this year and am currently working on a Yeats-related project with Vincent O’Neill and Mary Ramsey.

The narrator of Sebastian Barry’s "The Secret Scripture" observes that, etymologically, nostalgia is a disease, but I find returning to Buffalo restores a connection to a great source of energy. I’m thrilled at the city’s current efflorescence.

Q: I see "The Ulysees Trials" as another link in the fascinating connection among Ireland, its arts and artists and Buffalo. Is there any possible explanation for this surprising but strong connection beyond grace and synchronicity?

A: Could it be that Oscar Wilde was right? That nature imitates art? That the Impressionists were responsible for  London’s fogs?  And thus that the presence of the Joyce trove at the University at Buffalo contributes to an atmosphere in Buffalo that welcomes  manifestations of Irish culture like Vincent O’Neill and Josephine Hogan’s Irish Classical Theatre, the Shaw Festival, and the wonderful readers in the Hassett readings that are part of Mick Cochrane’s  Contemporary Writers series at Canisius?

I think there’s something to this, although W. B. Yeats may have expressed it more practically in his poem chastising Lord Ardilaun for declining to make a second contribution to build a Dublin art gallery until the people proved they wanted pictures by making contributions of their own. Yeats’s view that cultural institutions create a cultured society lies behind his challenge to Ardilaun: "Give not what they  would,/  But the right twigs for an eagle’s nest.”

Mention of Yeats is a reminder that he and other central figures in the Irish Literary Revival he spearheaded were welcome and appreciative visitors to Buffalo, putting in motion, or reinforcing, the connection between Buffalo and Ireland’s arts and artists. Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, wrote to his brother during a visit in 1911 that the people here are far more intellectual than in New York, adding that, after giving a lecture at the University Club, “We gathered in a big room and drank quantities of beer, and listened to songs and salty speeches from all sorts of distinguished people, lawyers, doctors, judges, engineers, and men of science, everybody high and low quite fraternal. Buffalo is like New York, only far nicer in just the things wherein New York is nicest.”

The Irish writers in our series at Canisius have uniformly expressed the same regard  for Buffalo and its people. Seamus Heaney so enjoyed the audience at his reading that he insisted on teaching a class the next day; Sebastian Barry loved strolling down Delaware Avenue, Roy Foster and Paula Meehan loved the Albright-Knox, where, incidentally, Yeats’s muse and Abbey actor Florence Farr performed in 1907.

Q: Speaking of Florence Farr, tell me about your 2015 lecture at the Shaw Festival.

A: It showed how the relationship between Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle  in Shaw's play Pygmalion resembles Shaw's relationship to Florence Farr, who was wooed by both Shaw and Yeats. I suggested that Farr, who had reached the outskirts of Niagara-on-the-Lake en route from Toronto to perform at the Albright Gallery in 1907, would finally reach that beautiful town in the summer of 2015 when Eliza Doolittle appeared on stage at the Shaw Festival.

Q: I was surprised to read about such vivid characters as Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap and John Quinn in these events. How did you discover them?

A: Yeats was my pathway to the "Ulysees" litigation. When Anderson and Heap were charged with obscenity for printing an episode of "Ulysees" in 1920, J.B. Yeats sent their lawyer, John Quinn, a brilliant defense. The elder Yeats insisted, in memorable language, that the outcry against Joyce had nothing to do with morality; rather, “The whole movement against Joyce and his terrible veracity, naked and unashamed, has its origin in the desire of people to live comfortably, and, that they may live comfortably, to live superficially.”  Not wanting to be perceived as what he called “a champion of sex literature,” Quinn failed to make this argument, contenting himself with unworthy arguments that Ulysses was an incomprehensible and failed experiment.

Q: Quinn is a fascinating character – in some ways bound and blinded by the sexism, prudishness and misogyny one might expect of his era, yet in other ways a bridge, like yourself, between the world of the arts and the world of the law. Did you ever feel a kinship with him?

A: Quinn’s mind had an abrasiveness that makes it hard to feel kinship with him, even while admiring his skill, energy, accomplishments and generosity. It was unpardonable to fail to give Anderson and Heap, and derivatively Joyce, a worthy defense. Still, he donated a vast collection of his correspondence to the New York Public Library, thereby making  it possible to tell his story. He may have been wrong, but was never in doubt.

"The 'Ulysees' Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law," by Joseph M. Hassett, 221 pages, The Lilliput Press, is priced at $45 on, but can be purchased for $22 from some Amazon marketplace sellers, including


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