Blog Post

The Most Dangerous Book

Well, I really had meant to update this every week but life happens. I’m still working on the Irish travel memoir belles lettres book (will be, I think, for another year) and reading three books for review: A Twentieth Century Life in Letters by Kay Boyle, Joy Ride by John Lahr, and C.S. Lewis and His Circle, a selection of essays about Lewis and company. Joy Ride is on the burner right now because I have a venue lined up for the review and will post it here when it comes out.

Meanwhile, here is a review I wrote of Kevin Birmingham’s book The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Enjoy and go with the good.

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham, Head of Zeus, Ltd., 420 pp., 20.00 Euros, ISBN: 9781784080723

I confess: I have never finished reading Ulysses. The farthest I got was the “Circe” episode where I had no clue what was going on, and the idea of using commentaries repelled me. Besides I was too busy being a graduate student in English to study the greatest novel of the 20th century.

I have, however, now read two books about Ulysses: Ulysses on the Liffey by Richard Ellman, Joyce’s definitive biographer, and the book under discussion. In a way it is not surprising that someone with an MA in English should have read books about Ulysses without ever having read the book itself. As Kevin Birmingham, “a literary historian” who “teaches on the History & Literature program at Harvard,” writes, “There are roughly three hundred books and more than three thousand scholarly articles devoted partly or entirely, to Ulysses, and about fifty of those books have been written in the past ten years.” Still, 100,000 copies of Ulysses are sold each year.

Birmingham calls his book, “the biography of a book”:

It charts the development of Ulysses from the first tug of inspiration in 1906, when it was just an idea for a short story—a Homeric name appended to someone Joyce met in Dublin one drunken night—to the novel’s astounding growth during and after World War I, as Joyce wrote out its 732 pages in notebooks, on loose-leaf sheets and on scraps of paper in more than a dozen apartments in Trieste, Zurich and Paris. And yet the years Joyce spent writing his novel are just a portion of its story. Ulysses was serialized in a New York magazine, monitored as it passed through the mails and censored even by its most vocal advocate, modernism’s unstinting ringleader, Ezra Pound.

The New York magazine Birmingham mentions here is The Little Review, published by Margaret Anderson, a woman from a privileged background, as were almost all the other people in this book who supported Ulysses; the only ones obviously not from such a background are James Joyce and his common-law wife, Nora Barnacle. Both grew up in abusive households where alcohol and beatings were rife, Joyce in Dublin, Nora in Galway. Margaret Anderson was soon joined by Jane Heap, who became her lover and companion, and by Ezra Pound. Another prominent patron was Harriet Weaver, who published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the magazine, The Egoist, which she had become editor of almost by accident,.

Weaver admired Joyce’s dedication to his art and though she did not always understand his work, she knew it gave her the same feeling she had had as a girl when she rebelled against her strict Church of England family to climb trees: “To read Joyce,” Birmingham writes, “was to escape from family prayers, to climb the highest tree and to behold the disquieting panorama across the bluff and the river Weaver coursing below it.” She went though many printers, firing them if they changed even one word. One time a printer “deleted two words (fart and ballocks) whose meaning Miss Weaver did not happen to know, which was, of course, beside the point.”

Another prominent supporter was the finance lawyer, John Quinn, whom Birmingham calls “The Medici of Modernism.” I had often seen the photograph of Joyce, Pound, Ford Madox Ford and John Quinn taken in Paris in 1923, but I had never know why he was there until now. He was a fiery wealthy lawyer who supported the modernist movement, in both painting (he was the biggest contributor to the famous Armory Show in 1912 in New York City) and literature. He was not particularly keen, though, on Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s relationship and would grouse about that “Lesbian stuff,” and both Pound and Joyce often infuriated him with their mixture of haughtiness and naivete.

Despite his significant financial and moral support of both Pound and Joyce, though, the one who helped Joyce the most with regard to Ulysses was another woman of privilege and high courage, Sylvia Beach, founder of the Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. She was the one who seemed fated to be the first publisher of Ulysses, first meeting Joyce at a party in his honor, at which he refused to drink champagne until eight o’clock, his steadfast rule. And when the talk turned to literary matters, he stole away and hid in his host’s library. Beach followed and introduced herself to him. In a short while her fear of him as the Great Artist had been transformed: “The great James Joyce was a blushing, trembling man with weak eyes and a fear of dogs”–the former she knew because he pulled out a small notebook and held it very close to his eyes so he could write down the address of her shop; the latter because he jumped when he heard a dog bark across the road– “He was adorable.” There is a note of condescension there that rankles—I’m not sure if it comes from Beach herself or Birmingham—but Beach dedicated herself wholeheartedly to publishing and distributing Ulysses over the succeeding years until Joyce’s pride and demanding demeanor became too much for even her and she severed connections with him. But in the meantime Ulysses had been published and smuggled into America and England and other countries and had become a scandal to some but a Bible to the outcasts.

The final battle, at least in America, took place when Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House and its imprint Modern Library, teamed up with Morris Ernst, the co-founder of the ACLU, to have Ulysses tried for obscenity before the court of Judge John Woolsey, with whom they thought they had a decent chance to prevail. Which they did. Woolsey, a prodigious reader and cultural man, who once told the jurors of a six-month-long trial that they should form an alumni association, is just one of the many colorful characters who appear in this biography of Ulysses. The people and forces that were arrayed against the books were just as colorful, in their own fashion, as those for it, including Anthony Comstock, who had been stabbed in the cheek by a pornographer he was bringing to jail. Birmingham does a marvelous job of telling a complicated story; my only caveat or doubt is his contention that the forces of censorship were part of a capitalistic conspiracy to keep the masses from rising against the upper class. Perhaps elements of the government used it to keep tabs on the anarchy movement (one theme running through the book), but I don’t think the linkage is that strong; it seems to me that sincere religious belief, no matter how misguided, was often the main motivation.

What stands out in the book the most, of course, is the father of Ulysses, James Joyce himself (and to a lesser extent, the mother, Nora Barnacle). The most controversial claim in Birmingham’s book has been that Joyce’s severe iritis (he suffered through “at least” eleven eye operations, two of which are explained in excruciating detail) was caused by syphilis, which he had probably contacted in his visits to Dublin’s red-light district, “Nighttown.” As Birmingham presents it the evidence is very compelling that this is true. It makes Joyce’s artistic dedication all the more poignant; he no longer believed in the teachings of the Catholic Church, but he was as devoted to his art as much as any saint has been devoted to God. In a sense what he had to do was harder, because he did not have the consolation of damnation, the idea he was being punished for his sins; instead he had to accept “that this disease had merely happened.” Birmingham continues in what I found to be the most moving paragraph in the book,

Damnation was the only alternative to the pointlessness of bacteria. Joyce spent his life coming to terms with that pointlessness, reconciling egoism with the empire of microbes—a lesson, perhaps, too deep for epiphanies. While he would never accept an angry God, he would never entirely lost that God, either, for the foibles and ugly truths about Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom were, to some degree, personal confessions in fantastic guises, words of contrition written with the hope of finding absolution. The individualism that define Joyce’s career never escaped the shadow of Catholicism, the most rigid, hierarchical power structure he knew. After years of writing Ulysses, the word that Joyce rushed to Darantière [the printer Beach used] in a telegram just days before publication was atonement.

It was the last word he added before the novel was published and presented to him on his birthday, February 2, 1922. Thankfully for us, his atonement in the form of Ulysses can be read anytime, almost anywhere, without censorship—a story in itself which has now finally completely been told. And inspired by the story Birmingham tells, I have gone back to reading Ulysses. This time I know I will finish it.


And I did, just so you know.


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