Oh, you scandalous hussy, Gerty MacDowell, you sure know how to cause a stir. Imagine, letting Leopold Bloom glimpse your uncovered legs down by the Strand at the exact moment a Roman candle blasts heavenward ...
That scene takes place in Episode 13 of James Joyce’s "Ulysses," and one needn’t be Dr. Freud to figure out what likely transpired there on the beach. One thing’s for sure, certain censorious individuals in these United States caught the drift, and they made it their business to keep their countrymen and women safe from such filth.
And they almost did.
In "The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses," Kevin Birmingham details the history of the infamous book’s publication, recalling a now-quaint-seeming time when words were worth fighting for and going to jail over.
In our Age of Diffusion, where media oversaturation is a prevailing fact of life, and words are the stuff of ephemera that are texted and Tweeted with nary a thought, the battle of more than 80 years ago over the right to publish Joyce’s masterwork is, by comparison, a romantic quest for the ages.
And what a quest it was. "Ulysses" was illegal to own in most of the English-speaking world for more than a decade. It was banned, burned, debated, smuggled, and finally legalized following a 1933 court ruling. In Birmingham’s highly readable and erudite book, he infuses this story with drama, reminding us that the right to express oneself can never be taken for granted.
Readers will quickly realize the immense scope of "The Most Dangerous Book." Modernism, obscenity, the power once held by postal authorities, vice squads, 19th century English law, Joyce’s sex life and health problems, The Lost Generation, early literary magazines, Wall Street lawyers, the suffrage movement, anarchy in America, and even the Enlightenment are all seamlessly woven into this most fascinating tapestry.
It may be hard to believe today, when any kind of porn is just a click away (or so I’m told), that not so long ago people went to jail over so-called “lewd” words or descriptions of sexual acts. "Ulysses" changed all that. As Birmingham writes, “Being forbidden is part of what made Joyce’s novel so transformative. 'Ulysses' changed not only the course of literature in the century that followed, but the very definition of literature in the eyes of the law.”
Birmingham, who'll be reading from the book June 23 at the Harvard Book Store, begins his tale in 1904, the year Joyce first met Nora Barnacle, the woman who would become his wife and muse. In his novel, meant to commemorate the meeting of the two, Birmingham unravels his narrative from different angles in alternating chapters in an almost Cubist manner, digging into territory only briefly dealt with in other chronicles of Joyce’s life or in the countless scholarly studies of "Ulysses."
Struggling against eye problems that not only threatened his sight but at times left him lying helpless on the floor in pain, Joyce took seven years to complete "Ulysses," which tells the tale of a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom. The novel began its life as installments between 1918 and 1920 in The Little Review, a New York magazine that specialized in modernist literature. The women behind that publication, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, faced fines and arrests for their efforts, and backers of the novel, including Wall Street lawyer John Quinn, did yeoman’s work to keep the presses rolling.
Eventually, Quinn and his curious partner from across the Atlantic, poet Ezra Pound, decided it would be best to publish "Ulysses" in full, as books were less likely to bring legal problems than small magazines. They were wrong, of course. Along the way, a number of bold-faced names got in on the action, including the famed Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., which stepped up in 1922 to publish the first edition; Virginia Woolf, who did not; Ernest Hemingway, who played a role in smuggling the book into the United States; and eventually Random House, which carried the battle to its finish.
There are too many stops in between to recount in a short review, but Birmingham brings it all to life, sharing the legal principles, odd characters, overweening pols, and devoted lovers of language that made for such a pitched battle. It’s no spoiler to share the basis of Judge John M. Woolsey’s ruling that made "Ulysses" freely available. As Birmingham puts it:
“Woolsey had to pit the virtue of literature against the vice of obscenity and declare a victor ... If 'Ulysses' was going to be permissible in America, he would have to assert that the novel was transcendent, that it turned filth into art.”
The world seemed to grow up a little on that December morning in 1933, when Woolsey set down his razor and began writing his decision. Woolsey ruled that words do indeed matter, but context does as well.
In addition, "Ulysses" proved that real life, literary expression, beauty, ugliness, sublimity, and degradation also matter. Those things are all part of who we are, and Joyce boldly put it all on the page in his book. It was worth fighting for then, and it still is, no matter how busy we are thumbing “LOL” on our smartphones to our BFFs.
It takes a tour de force of storytelling to encapsulate the gestation, birth and life of what many critics consider the most important novel in the English language. Does Birmingham give us this? To steal a line from Molly Bloom, that word-spinning seductress of Ulysses’ final chapter: “Yes I said yes.”
John Winters is the author of two works of fiction, as well as essays and criticism. More at johnjwinters.com.