Want to Understand James Joyce’s Ulysses? Read About Its Obscenity Trial.

Reading between the lines.
June 5 2014 8:28 AM

A Form of Literary Anarchy

If you want to understand Ulysses, you should read about its obscenity trial.

Ulysses Illustration.

Illustration by Liana Finck.

So, you’ve decided to read Ulysses. Mazel tov! Sláinte! You’re surely aware that it’s a “difficult” book—the difficult book—but no fear, there’s a whole shelf’s worth of travel guides to light the way. Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study, the earliest such skeleton key, was published in 1930, when the novel was still illegal to own or sell. It was followed by Harry Blamires’ The Bloomsday Book, an interpretive summary; Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, which unpacks the novel’s manifold literary and historical allusions; and Hugh Kenner’s Ulysses, a narrative critical study. If it’s multiple perspectives you’re looking for, try James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays, or A Companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses, or indeed, any of the twenty-odd issues of the Joyce Studies Annual. Still other volumes promise to familiarize you with the streets and daily bustle of Dublin as a means of grasping the book, while Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography illuminates Joyce’s turbulent life and the way he repurposed it in fiction. But wait, have you even decided which Ulysses you’re going to read? The original Shakespeare and Company? The 1932 Random House? The controversial 1985 Gabler edit?

The whole “Ulysses Explained” cottage industry implies that the novel itself is a dense intellectual maze, best understood as one man’s totemic achievement—a 20-hour tour of James Joyce’s home city, told through the consciousnesses of two characters who represent his youthful and middle-aged selves, set on the day when he had his first sexual liaison with his future wife, and elevated by his own encyclopedic mind and stylistic gifts. A full appreciation of Ulysses therefore requires an understanding of Joyce himself: his life, his reading habits, his illnesses, his various drafts and revisions, his perversions, his bravery, his genius.

But subjecting Ulysses to this Great Man theory of literary appreciation does a disservice to many of the things that make it so wonderful. It makes its canonization seem foreordained and minimizes its real historical importance. Truth is, it took a diffuse team of kindred spirits, many of whom never met Joyce in person, to bring this novel to the public, and quite a few more to ensure it stayed there. That’s why, despite my reservations about another doorstop for the cause, Kevin Birmingham’s new history, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, deserves to be on any aspiring Bloomophile’s shortlist of accompaniments. This is a deeply fun work of scholarship that rescues Ulysses from the superlatives and academic battles that shroud its fundamental unruliness and humanity. Birmingham reminds us that this now-unquestioned “greatest novel” required the help of lawyers, anarchists, and bootleggers to overcome a reputation for indecency so toxic that even E.M. Forster deemed it “a simplification of the human character in the interests of hell.” It’s miraculous enough that Ulysses was written in the first place, but its road to publication and widespread acceptance is lined with minor miracles as well. 

The Most Dangerous Book.

Image Courtesy of Penguin Press.

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Birmingham, a lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard, positions Ulysses in two ways: as the rallying point for a gang of (mostly) American modernists, eager to force a new literature and mode of thought upon the world; and as a threat to anti-vice societies that originated in the Enlightenment and still held sway over the English-speaking world’s popular culture in the aftermath of World War I. Joyce’s own prodigious work isn’t given short shrift—this is as powerful a testament to his hard work and talent as any biography—but it is positioned as just one element in the novel’s ultimate fate and reception. What’s more, Birmingham equates Joyce’s artistic breakthroughs with the political ones that its publication demanded. “Ulysses removed all the barriers to art,” Birmingham writes. “It demanded unfettered freedom of artistic form, style and content—literary freedoms that were as deeply political as any speech protected by the first amendment.”

In its first half, The Most Dangerous Book proceeds as a two-pronged literary potboiler. On one side, Joyce tools away on his novel in Switzerland, Austria, and France, battling poverty and gruesome eye illness and always adding, ADDING, ADDING more observations and verbal details to its relatively simple narrative frame. In alternating chapters, the staff of the Little Review, an experimental literary magazine in New York, serializes the novel despite growing resistance from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Kevin Birmingham.
Kevin Birmingham.

Photo Courtesy of Penguin Press.

The Review’s publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, had already brought out a few wave-making issues of their magazine when an indefatigable Joyce booster, Ezra Pound, essentially forced his way into their fold in 1916 and argued for the Irishman’s inclusion. At the time, Pound was crusading for a purer, more representational literature he called Imagism. He was also close with John Quinn, a powerful and politically connected New York attorney who happened to be one of the world’s foremost collectors of contemporary art and literature. Together, this quartet had a platform, an artistic mission, and a powerful benefactor. In 1918, when the first chapters of Ulysses were sent in from Joyce’s current home in Trieste, they suddenly had a cause as well.

“The censorship troubles of Ulysses’ began not because vigilantes were searching for pornography but because government censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals, and anarchists,” writes Birmingham, “and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists.” Anderson and Heap were fond of publishing feminist battle cries, as well as essays by the infamous militant anarchist Emma Goldman. Like Pound, they insisted that their aesthetic movement was also political, a means of upending the social order. The U.S. government agreed, and used the Post Office to clamp down on the Little Review by multiplying their shipping costs and eventually seizing copies.

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