When Kevin Birmingham first read James Joyce’s Ulysses, he was a college freshman and completely at a loss. “I don’t know what sadist assigned it to 18-year-olds,” he says. But as he read it a second time (and a third and a fifth), Birmingham came to appreciate the novel’s ambition and innovation—the intimacy with the characters, the single-day structure and its transgressive politics.
He also realized that what happened to Ulysses was just as interesting as what happened in it. It’s this story, of the slow, difficult publication of Joyce’s masterwork in 1922, that Birmingham sets out to tell in his new book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. By tracing Joyce’s struggles to write and publish his novel—facing down public indifference, financial woes, obscenity charges and increasingly gruesome eye problems—Birmingham illuminates a larger battle to redefine our views on freedom, art and decency that echoed throughout the 20th century.
Birmingham renders this conflict on a grand scale, weaving together the lives of the writers, publishers, lawyers and judges on both sides of the battle over Ulysses. Early drafts of the book were so sprawling that Birmingham had to cut 50,000 words just to bring it down to a manageable size. One of the major losses was Birmingham’s plan to balance Joyce’s story with that of Anthony Comstock, a special agent of the postal service who dedicated his life to enforcing the obscenity statute that bore his name. “I saw him as really a counterpoint to Joyce,” he says. “They were both very convinced about the power of the written word—for Joyce it inspired him and for Comstock it terrified him.”
Although Comstock died before the battle over Ulysses began, the characters who were personally involved are just as remarkable, especially the eclectic band of radicals who supported Joyce: Ezra Pound, the esteemed poet; Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the openly lesbian couple who edited The Little Review; Sylvia Beach, the owner of Paris’ premier English language bookshop; and John Quinn, a respected lawyer who believed in the artistic importance of Joyce’s work but had little patience for the others’ revolutionary antics. Each of these characters put her reputation, her finances, and, in the case of Heap and Anderson, her life on the line in support of Joyce’s novel. Nowadays, Birmingham says, “the only person who likes Ulysses is the snooty person at the party who thinks of books as vegetables or pills that you have to swallow, but it wasn’t like that for those people.”
This attempt to recapture the historical specificity of the reactions to Ulysses, negative as well as positive, lies at the heart of Birmingham’s book. “Obscenity is just as illegal today as it was in 1922,” he points out. The difference is in the way we define it.” That shift began with Judge John Woolsey’s 1933 historic decision to declare Ulysses legal on the basis of artistic merit. Once redeeming social value became a viable defense against prosecution for obscenity, such cases became increasingly difficult to prove and obscenity convictions eventually petered out.
Although state-sponsored censorship is rare these days, the driving force behind it—private lobbying groups—is not. Though the vice suppression societies that dogged Ulysses may be gone, the Internet has made it easier than ever to raise a fuss around a controversial work of art. Cause enough trouble and the book or movie or show might just go away. “The sad thing,” says Birmingham, “is that, because the publication of a book is a precarious business to begin with, it’s not too difficult to get books withdrawn.”
The Brooklyn Quarterly
So much of Ulysses seems to react against something: social restriction, legal limitation, the hypocrisy of decorum. What, if anything, does the book promote? Regardless of what is or isn’t reasonably considered “obscene,” what does Joyce offer as sacred in the book?
Joyce wouldn’t have subscribed to anything being “sacred.” The whole category is another version of “authority,” and Joyce rejected that as a phantasm. I should say, though, that I don’t think Ulysses is any more reactionary than any other new work of art. In fact, it seems to try to engulf everything—all styles and discourses have their place in modernism’s epic. So, for example, Gerty MacDowell’s consciousness is shaped by the magazines and pulpy romance novels she reads, but that chapter doesn’t react against that type of writing. Joyce uses it, turns it around, and shows us qualities to that writing that we never would have seen before. Modernists like Joyce were certainly opposed to empire and aggressive empiricism and Victorian sensibilities, but the response, at least in Joyce’s case, was far more complex than reaction.
That’s a useful clarification. It makes me wonder, though: The book rejects authority and strives to be inclusive—to be thorough—in a way that accurately renders the complexities of human psychology and of social interactions. How would you say these interests are served by Joyce’s narrative and stylistic innovations? In a way, even the tradition of narrative itself, with its expectations for beginning, middle, and end, suggests a simplicity and an objectivity that seem out of sync with Joyce’s view of the world.
I agree. The first thing writers are told to do is to develop a distinctive voice, and having a consistent style throughout a book is one of the ways narrators and narratives assert their authority. Ulysses fractures all of that. We could think of it as a narrative version of cubism, where we see an object from multiple perspectives at once, but I wonder if it’s more fundamental than that. Are we, as people, stylistically consistent? With the way we live? Or even the way we think? I suspect we like to think of our lives and our thoughts as being seamless, but Joyce’s insight is that our experience of the world is more like a pastiche, particularly in the modern urban spaces—it’s a telling coincidence that a poem like Eliot’s "The Waste Land" would come out the same year as Ulysses. Maybe the fantasy of our own seamless consistency is the most tyrannical authority.
Of course, Eliot shared a friend and editor with Joyce: Ezra Pound, a father of modernism and one of Joyce’s most loyal supporters. Yet The Most Dangerous Book notes that it was Pound who censored Ulysses before anyone else. Of course, Pound justified his strikes as friendly edits—edits that just happened to remove the most explicit references in that installation. He criticized Joyce’s prose for its “needless superlatives,” claiming they gave the effect of “bad art.” Did Pound have a point? Did Joyce’s vision for the novel risk overwhelming his concerns about craft?
There was nothing “superlative” about what Pound cut. He was trying to pacify John Quinn, who was funding The Little Review and whom Pound was cultivating as a patron for himself and his friends. Quinn was hot-tempered and had very little patience for anything that might provoke the authorities. Quinn suspected that it would be his job to come to Joyce’s rescue if The Little Review were ever prosecuted, and, of course, Quinn was right. Pound was usually relentless when it came to literary integrity, but he knew how to yield a bit at crucial moments—at least in those early years.
It’s true, though, that many of the early reviewers worried that Joyce was a promising writer who had lost control over his own talent. You can imagine how the novel would seem reckless to those first readers. It took a while, but the profound craftsmanship eventually became clear to those who were willing to be patient with the book. It’s amazing, in retrospect, that Pound didn’t raise more objections as the portions of the novel made their way to him bit by bit. He thought Joyce had gone off the deep end in the third episode but changed his mind after a few weeks. That’s usually the way it was with people—including Virginia Woolf, one of the mothers of modernism. You’d read it and possibly hate it. But it would stick with you somehow, and the brilliance would shine through. It works on the mind slowly.
For the full interview, please go to The Brooklyn Quarterly's website.