The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
As this review is published, the world has just finished its observance of Bloomsday, a celebration that occurs every June 16th. Centered in Dublin, it’s marked around the globe, from Tokyo to Santa Maria, Brazil, to commemorate the single day immortalized in James Joyce’s novel, ULYSSES. Kevin Birmingham’s engrossing and well-documented study of the perilous path that book had to navigate --- first, simply to be published, and then to achieve wide dissemination --- reminds us how close the world came to not seeing this classic modernist work.
What Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, calls his “biography of a book” meshes several narrative strands: an account of the seven arduous years it took Joyce to produce the work in Trieste, Zurich and Paris; the courageous, often clandestine efforts of booksellers and publishers, many of whom lacked significant financial resources, to shepherd the book to press and deliver it to the public; and, finally, the legal battles fought against the powerful government and private anti-obscenity movement that blocked the book’s publication in the United States until 1934.
"For all the seriousness of its subject, THE MOST DANGEROUS BOOK’s tone is positive, even heroic, not bleak. Birmingham has an eye for the good anecdote and the occasional snippet of humor that will help leaven his story."
The colorful story is populated with characters as memorable as Stephen Daedelus and Molly Bloom. There are literary titans like Ezra Pound (Joyce’s earliest champion); Virginia Woolf, who greeted Joyce’s work coolly when approached about publishing it in serial form in 1918; and T.S. Eliot, all part of the modernist movement for whom “literature was a battle against an obsolete civilization.” Others, like Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, whose literary magazine, The Little Review, began serializing the work in the United States in 1918 and who fought the first, unsuccessful legal challenge in 1921, are less well-known but, as Birmingham describes their role, more essential to the book’s eventual triumph. And, of course, there is Nora Barnacle, the Dublin chambermaid whose first romantic encounter with Joyce occurred on June 16, 1904, and who eventually became his wife. Of all those who made ULYSSES possible, Birmingham ranks her the “most important,” offering striking support for that assertion in the sometimes shocking letters she exchanged with her husband that “inspired some of his most beautiful and obscene writing.”
For someone without legal training, Birmingham does a capable job describing the procedural maneuvers and legal craftsmanship that finally overcame efforts by organizations like the ominously named New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to ban the book. By cleverly focusing his arguments on the literary merit of ULYSSES instead of attempting to evade the prevailing definition of obscenity, the ACLU’s Morris Ernst, in tandem with Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, won the decisive court battle in 1933, persuading Judge John Woolsey to conclude that “ULYSSES is an amazing tour de force,” and ruling that the book could be sold.
While Birmingham devotes considerable attention to the circuitous road to publication for ULYSSES, he’s also attentive to the story of how it came to be written, as its author battled encroaching blindness (brought on by syphilis) and a variety of other debilitating ailments, physical and psychological, wrestling with a work that threatened to consume him. Birmingham describes in gut-churning detail the painful eye surgeries (12 in all) that Joyce underwent to save his deteriorating eyesight. For most of his career, the writer lived in straitened circumstances, depending on the patronage of supporters like Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate who founded the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company and who published the first edition of ULYSSES in 1922. Birmingham ably documents the effort it took to bring forth what he calls this work of “ardor and arduousness,” communicating the mixture of genius and something bordering on madness that infuses it.
For all the seriousness of its subject, THE MOST DANGEROUS BOOK’s tone is positive, even heroic, not bleak. Birmingham has an eye for the good anecdote and the occasional snippet of humor that will help leaven his story. He describes in some detail, for example, the effort of one Barnet Braverman, a “booklegger” who stuffed copies of ULYSSES into his clothes and smuggled them one at a time on the ferry from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit. And there’s the slightly madcap account of Ernst’s pursuit of a customs official in 1932, demanding that he seize the single copy of the book he and Cerf had arranged to have imported to set their legal challenge in motion.
Today it’s hard to appreciate that less than a century ago, there existed in the United States powerful forces single-mindedly focused on suppressing art in the name of protecting public virtue. Thanks to them, as Birmingham describes persuasively in this book, ULYSSES was transformed from “the standard bearer of an avant-garde movement into a representative of art as a whole, a symbol of creativity fighting against the authors that would constrain it.” Even for those who haven’t read it and never will, the world without ULYSSES would be a very different, poorer place.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 20, 2014