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Decades later, current headlines echo controversies addressed in Morris Ernst collection

Through a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a team of archivists and student interns has been working to organize and catalog the papers of attorney Morris Leopold Ernst since September 2009. The collection is now open for research, and a finding aid is available online.

Morris Leopold Ernst (1888–1976), who earned his law degree 100 years ago, may not yet be a household name, but his legal career has had a lasting impact on American society. Ernst dealt primarily with civil liberties cases in a variety of areas, including censorship, obscenity, and first amendment rights. In addition to his busy legal career, he was a prolific writer, authoring more than 30 books and hundreds of articles, essays, and short works on legal topics and other social issues like big business and divorce.

Ernst is probably best known for his work in literary censorship cases. His influential fights include the defense of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Homecoming, and most famously, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Though the majority of Ernst’s work took place in the early and mid-twentieth century, as our team of archivists sifted through his papers and processed the collection, we couldn’t help noticing how timely the collection seemed. Over and over again the subjects we read about in Ernst’s archive were echoed by stories in the recent news.

The case United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce, which Ernst and his colleagues carefully orchestrated, won Ernst much fame and set a precedent for arguing and trying “objectionable” literature. Banned in the United States for more than a decade before Ernst won the case in 1933, Joyce’s masterpiece has had to overcome other more recent hurdles. In 2010 the work was in the news when Apple tried to censor a graphic novel version by Rob Berry and Josh Levitas. Before allowing the Ulysses comic to appear as an electronic book for the iPad, Apple requested that the illustrators remove all nudity from their images. Apple eventually rescinded its demand and allowed the original illustrations to appear.

In the 1930s, Ernst was also a prominent figure in the early birth control movement defending the Birth Control Federation of America and the Clinical Research Bureau, predecessors of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As these organizations printed and distributed educational materials on reproduction and contraception, they were charged with obscenity. In cases such as United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, Ernst exonerated the movement’s leaders from indecency and in so doing, helped promote women’s rights and the freedom of choice. Contraception and women’s rights have continued to be newsworthy topics.

Ernst was also well known for his work with labor unions, famously defending first amendment rights in Hague, Mayor, et al. v. Committee for Industrial Organization et al. This conflict arose in the 1930s when Jersey City, N.J. mayor Frank Hague tried to suppress many of the Committee for Industrial Organization’s (CIO) activities and decreed by city ordinance that laborers could not assemble in public. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court where the workers’ rights were upheld. Though Ernst won that case in 1939, politicians and labor unions have often been at odds with each other. For example, beginning in February 2011 headlines were populated with reports about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to curtail union bargaining rights. The AFL-CIO represented workers in these disagreements as well.

Ernst published his book Too Big in 1940, one of the many books he wrote. The title is echoed by the phrase “too big to fail,” with which we all are familiar, as it has been frequently used in the media since the market crash in 2008. Monopolies and the danger of big business were of real concern to Ernst, and he wrote about it not only in that volume, but in numerous magazine articles.

Censorship, birth control, labor unions, and monopolies were only a few of Ernst’s many interests. As a tireless worker he involved himself in many other issues, such as reducing postage rates for books and promoting literacy around the world. His papers provide insight into his legal practice and writing career and could also provide a new perspective on issues in contemporary society.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

In the Galleries: Censorship of "The Sex Side of Life"

Photo of Mary Ware Dennett from New York Journal American collection.
Photo of Mary Ware Dennett from New York Journal American collection.

In 1919 Mary Ware Dennett (1872–1947) published The Sex Side of Life, a sex-education pamphlet for young people that she originally wrote for her sons. The U.S. Post Office declared the pamphlet obscene in April 1922, and Dennett struggled on her own to get the ruling reversed, all the while continuing to distribute The Sex Side of Life through the mail.

In 1928, in consultation with attorney Morris Ernst, Dennett agreed that it was time to test The Sex Side of Life in court.  The trial came sooner than anticipated when the Justice Department indicted Dennett for mailing the pamphlet to “Mrs. Carl A. Miles” in Virginia. A jury convicted Dennett of distributing obscene material, and the judge fined her $3,000, which Dennett refused to pay. Newspapers and magazines across the country expressed outrage at the jury’s decision. Dennett became a cause célèbre and received a contract from Vanguard Press to write about her experiences.

Dennett’s conviction was overturned on appeal in 1930. In his decision, Judge Augustus Hand wrote: “The defendant’s discussion of the phenomena of sex is written with sincerity of feeling… Any incidental tendency to arouse sex impulses which such a pamphlet may perhaps have, is apart from and subordinate to its main effect.”

A copy of the pamphlet, as well as correspondence documenting its censorship, is on display in Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored through January 22.

Cover of 'The Sex Side of Life' by Mary Ware Dennet.
Cover of 'The Sex Side of Life' by Mary Ware Dennet.

The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Assistant Archivist Nicole Davis (left) and Archivist Jennifer Hecker work on cataloging the papers of lawyer Morris Ernst. Some of the more than 900 processed and unprocessed boxes of the Ernst collection surround Davis and Hecker as they work on making the collection accessible in fall 2011. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Assistant Archivist Nicole Davis (left) and Archivist Jennifer Hecker work on cataloging the papers of lawyer Morris Ernst. Some of the more than 900 processed and unprocessed boxes of the Ernst collection surround Davis and Hecker as they work on making the collection accessible in fall 2011. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Curator of Photography David Coleman (left) and Bill Ewing, Director of Curatorial Projects for Thames & Hudson, work with the Arnold Newman collection for a future project with the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Curator of Photography David Coleman (left) and Bill Ewing, Director of Curatorial Projects for Thames & Hudson, work with the Arnold Newman collection for a future project with the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Archivist Amy Armstrong works on cataloging the collection of screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, locating a costume worn by Willem Dafoe in ‘Light Sleeper’ (1992). Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Archivist Amy Armstrong works on cataloging the collection of screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, locating a costume worn by Willem Dafoe in ‘Light Sleeper’ (1992). Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Files that are being cataloged from the collection of screenwriter and director Paul Schrader. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Files that are being cataloged from the collection of screenwriter and director Paul Schrader. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Curator of Academic Affairs Danielle Sigler (center) shares collection items for ‘Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored,’ a 2011 fall exhibition that examines the multi-faceted machinery of literary censorship during the inter war years. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Curator of Academic Affairs Danielle Sigler (center) shares collection items for ‘Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored,’ a 2011 fall exhibition that examines the multi-faceted machinery of literary censorship during the inter war years. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson and his wife, Emily, view items from the Isaac Bashevis Singer archive, which include materials relating to Davidson’s film based on 'The Beard,' a short story by Singer. Photo by Pete Smith.
Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson and his wife, Emily, view items from the Isaac Bashevis Singer archive, which include materials relating to Davidson’s film based on 'The Beard,' a short story by Singer. Photo by Pete Smith.
Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, and volunteer Emily Dellheim prepare a costume worn by Deborah Kerr in ‘An Affair to Remember’ (1957).  Costumes were pulled for Professor James Glavan and MFA students in Costume Technology in the Department of Theatre and Dance.  The students examined the design, fabric choices, and construction techniques of the costumes. Photo by Pete Smith.
Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, and volunteer Emily Dellheim prepare a costume worn by Deborah Kerr in ‘An Affair to Remember’ (1957). Costumes were pulled for Professor James Glavan and MFA students in Costume Technology in the Department of Theatre and Dance. The students examined the design, fabric choices, and construction techniques of the costumes. Photo by Pete Smith.
Archivist Jennifer Hecker shares the Morris Ernst collection with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairman Jim Leach and Deputy Chairman Carole Watson. The NEH provided a grant to arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Archivist Jennifer Hecker shares the Morris Ernst collection with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairman Jim Leach and Deputy Chairman Carole Watson. The NEH provided a grant to arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Materials from an incoming literary collection are checked by Ransom Center staff before they are sent to be cataloged. If insect infestation, mold, or other issues are detected, the conservation department treats the items. Photo by Pete Smith.
Materials from an incoming literary collection are checked by Ransom Center staff before they are sent to be cataloged. If insect infestation, mold, or other issues are detected, the conservation department treats the items. Photo by Pete Smith.