The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to support a two-year, $392,213 project to arrange, describe and preserve the papers of lawyer Morris Leopold Ernst (1888-1976).
Dating from 1916 to 1976, the Ernst papers include manuscripts for his books and articles as well as legal research and case files. Extensive correspondence files document Ernst’s professional and personal communications with numerous politicians, jurists, artists and business leaders, including Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, judges Felix Frankfurter and Learned Hand, government officials J. Edgar Hoover and Harold L. Ickes, writers Edna Ferber and James Joyce, journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Winchell, and publishers Henry Luce and Arthur Sulzberger.
Ernst practiced law in New York for more than 60 years and was one of the leading advocates of civil liberties in 20th-century America. As counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and later director emeritus, Ernst defended individual rights and freedom in numerous landmark federal cases on privacy, libel, slander, obscenity, censorship, birth control and abortion.
Because of Ernst’s work on literary censorship cases and his personal and professional relationships with notable cultural figures, one of the strengths of the collection is literary history.
Ernst played a key role in the publication of one of the most, if not the most, significant English language novels of the 20th century, James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
First published in France in 1922, the book was banned in the United States as obscene until Ernst defended it in the 1933 trial The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses. The court decision redefined American legal interpretation of First Amendment and obscenity laws and continues to serve as a supportive case for literary freedom of speech.
Sixteen folders within the Ernst papers contain more than 600 pieces of correspondence, memoranda and legal documents that chronicle the “Ulysses” court battle.
As the author of 21 books, Ernst further established his reputation as an authority on constitutional rights and the First Amendment.
Ernst worked as counsel for the American Newspaper Guild, the Authors League of America, the United States War Production Board and the Dramatists Guild. He also was a special assistant to the attorney general on election frauds, a personal representative of President Roosevelt on missions abroad during World War II, a member of President Truman’s Civil Rights Commission and the United States Post Office Advisory Board and a labor arbitrator for New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
Ernst’s professional and personal relationships with literary, artistic and entertainment figures are evident in files of correspondence with George Gershwin, Fannie Hurst, Sinclair Lewis, Compton Mackenzie, Archibald MacLeish, Groucho Marx, H. L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Cornelia Otis Skinner, James Thurber, E. B. White and Carl Van Vechten.
The Ernst papers arrived at the Ransom Center in multiple accessions over a 20-year period and are housed in more than 900 individual boxes, accordion files and ring binders. Most of the papers are still in their original containers and access is primarily provided through the original shipping inventories received with each accession.
With funds from the NEH and other sources, the Ransom Center will preserve the Ernst papers by rehousing and organizing the papers and creating a collection-level finding aid to provide students, educators and scholars access to this material.