Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Booklegging Across the Border

Aug 21, 2015

A marvelous footnote to my book Closing Time about the history of prohibition, published last year.

In 1922 the Parisian bookseller Sylvia Beach had just published James Joyce's scandalous novel Ulysses and was trying to get copies to customers in the United States, where it was banned. Ernest Hemingway, who had recently moved to Paris and befriended Beach, put her into contact with an adman in
Detroit named Barnet Braverman. The plan they worked out was that Beach would ship books to Canada, where Ulysses was not yet suppressed. Braverman rented a room in Windsor, where the books would be stored, and when he crossed between the two cities on business, which he did almost daily, he would carry a copy or two through customs. From Detroit the volumes could be shipped clandestinely to other destinations in the US.

As detailed in Kevin Birmingham's fascinating book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, the plan worked. At great risk, Braverman carried dozens of copies across the river and through the border. When it began to seem a little suspicious, the same man carrying a copy of the same book day after day, he and a friend began hiding copies under their clothing. Both the US post office and the customs department were on the look out for Ulysses. If they'd been caught, both Braverman and his friend would have gone to jail.

What has all this got to do with prohibition? Well, in 1922 prohibition of the sale, manufacture and importation of liquor had been in place in the US for two years and one of the main corridors down which illicit booze was smuggled from Canada south of the border was the so-called Windsor-Detroit Funnel across the Detroit River. At one point it was estimated that $40 million worth of liquor flowed through the funnel annually. Everyone was doing it, smuggling bottles of hooch in gas tanks, under car seats, inside the lining of their coats, wherever. Which meant that border guards were particularly vigilant, making Braverman's operation even more dangerous.

However, he wasn't caught; all the copies of Ulysses made it across the border and into the hands of eager readers. A year later Ulysses was banned in Canada, and remained so until 1949.