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The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
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Classified ads. Mostly, this book is about the dirty parts of Ulysses. Turns out, a lot of people back in Joyce's day didn't like reading about farts and cuckolding and anal play, and they didn't like other people to read that stuff either. Here in the U. There were similar laws all over the place.
Ulysses was burned quite a bit; smuggled and then confiscated; people were jailed for distributing it. Interestingly, it was mostly women who were responsible for publishing and getting the book to its readers. In , 11 years after Ulysses was first printed, the US finally declared it nonpornographic and nonobscene and therefore allowed its distribution, paving the way for a better future for itself and for books like it all around the world.
This is all very interesting for its history and I can see the importance of Ulysses in the timeline of literature, even literature that I like very much. I don't think Thomas Pynchon's V. It does not, however, make me feel differently about Joyce's book at all. It's still tedious and messy. Its characters do not grab me or feel worth spending so much time inside their heads. If anyone has suggestions for another nonfiction book that might help me find what I'm missing about Ulysses, please let me know.
Jan 03, Loring Wirbel rated it really liked it. With more than a thousand biographies of James Joyce and analyses of Ulysses out there, could Kevin Birmingham slice the pie in a unique enough way to make his book stand out? Yes, he could, and the narrative provides a synopsis of strange times in censorship that most readers would be far too young to appreciate, let alone remember. It's rhetorical to talk about a moment and a literary work that changed everything, but the decade-long effort to legitimize Ulysses really did change everything. Ou With more than a thousand biographies of James Joyce and analyses of Ulysses out there, could Kevin Birmingham slice the pie in a unique enough way to make his book stand out?
Outside the parameters of explaining the difficult character of Joyce himself and his intentions in writing the book, Birmingham provides a useful service in explaining the cloister of radical independent DIY publishers in the s that made several of Joyce's original small-press publications possible. We are aware of the Progressive Era, and we may be dimly aware of the Dadaists, anarchists, suffragettes, and peace activists that dwelt along the edges of the mainstream muckrakers, but few of us understand how many of these outside communities came together referred to disparagingly by the mainstream world as "those Washington Square types" to publish magazines like The Little Review.
Birmingham shows how many art-radicals helped support political victims of the Palmer Raids like Emma Goldman, and makes the unusual observation that Joyce was aided in particular by cloisters of lesbian women represented by such marginal figures as Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, and Sylvia Beach. Let's face it, the Washington Square types were the Beat Generation or hippies, for that matter of the s and s, and we all could stand to understand a little more of their history. Joyce, of course, does not come across as an easy character to defend, even realizing that the harsh eye diseases brought on by syphilis kept the author in nearly constant pain.
His wife, Nora Barnacle, may not have been a big promoter of his work, but she certainly was a stoic character who put up with a lot of nonsense. It's fun to watch the way literary lions like Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and belatedly Virginia Woolf would go to great lengths to help Joyce, despite his antisocial tendencies. On the legal front, it is interesting to note how late in history the government attitude to literature was driven by repressive legislation such as the Comstock Act and the Hicklin Rule. If something was deemed lewd or unseemly, most in government believed the federal authorities had every right to keep it from the hands of the public, and there were active vice societies in every city to make sure this would happen.
The famous Molly Bloom soliloquy that ends Ulysses with a multitude of "fuck"s, "shit"s, and raw sexual descriptions, formed the centerpiece of the government's case against Joyce, but many federal prosecutorial authorities in the UK as well as U. The FDR White House does not come across in a positive way in this book, because of Roosevelt's hiring of conservative Catholic activists for key moral positions. But when the federal government lost its Circuit Court appeal of Judge Woolsey's original ruling allowing Ulysses to be published, the government wisely threw in the towel, setting the stage for further rulings regarding books such as Fanny Hill, Tropic of Cancer , and Couples , which threw obscenity definitions into the dustbin of history, where they belonged.
Now, of course, the notion of community standards has essentially come to mean there are no standards of obscenity or "decency" in the U.
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
While Birmingham is extremely eloquent in pulling together these many threads, and while he carries the torch for destroying notions of obscenity in matters of government, I can't help but think that in an artistic and literary sense, Birmingham drew his own line in the sand as to what he thought was acceptable.
He suggests that Joyce went too far in the years before his death in mapping-out the dream state of Finnegan's Wake , since he left all sensibility and story structure behind. Yet I myself consider Finnegan's Wake a far greater work than Ulysses even if it can only be understood by a few. What if Joyce had lived past WW2, and had elected to write a book based on undecrypted intercepts from Alan Turing, or based on translations of the unrepeatable numbers that make up pi? He might have gone past the limits of what most people could understand, but it doesn't mean he made a wrong turn.
The proponents of language poetry, flarf, and similar spinoffs have pushed the limits of meaning and nonsense in recent years, and I've been somewhat surprised to find that in prose, only a handful of writers like Burroughs, Pynchon, Gaddis, and Ballard even attempt to write works where all narrative and sequential meaning is tossed to the winds.
Perhaps such works would be a reach too far to win any audience whatsoever.
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But unlike Birmingham, I'm willing to say that if a writer has gone beyond the parameters I have set, maybe I simply haven't advanced far enough to get it yet. The fault might not be the writer's. Birmingham reaches two important conclusions in this book that are buried in the middle of the work, and not explicitly repeated in the end. In one important observation, he uses the character of Chicago smuggler Bernard Braverman to show that many middle-aged people who were radicals in the s and early s were only too willing to help Joyce by the late s and s.
Like Braverman, they felt that their world of radical social change had collapsed with the Palmer Raids, and that the only way to show one's radical roots in the get-rich-and-stay-drunk s was to take part in nonviolent actions that deliberately poked the government in the eye. Birmingham also makes an observation that remains just as relevant for the Pentagon Papers, for the Progressive magazine H-bomb case, and for our own era of WikiLeaks and Snowden NSA revelations.
By the time a boundary-changing work has been published anywhere on the planet, the bomb has already gone off. The only thing the government can do is damage control, and is usually very ineffective in performing the most minimal of damage control. In the case of Joyce and Ulysses , the bomb was not just dirty language and the internal sexual thoughts of Molly Bloom. The larger bomb was one whose fuse had been lit by Marcel Proust several decade previous.
From on, the right of the author to put forth an uncensored, unfiltered, and unstructured stream of consciousness was affirmed.
It wasn't just social mores that were shoved aside in the Ulysses ruling, but a whole set of assumptions about how reality was socially constructed and described that dated back to the Victorian Era, assumptions that were bound to be shattered at some point before mid-century. Jun 23, James Murphy rated it it was amazing. In our sexually-drenched culture it's hard to imagine a time when language such as that Joyce used in Ulysses to create his rich characters would be judged by governments to be obscene and unpublishable.
That was the case, however, and Kevin Birmingham's book on how Ulysses overcame that to be declared legally fit to publish is terribly interesting, a terribly fascinating story well told. The Most Dangerous Book is an elegant combination of criticism, history, and biography relating how Ulysses c In our sexually-drenched culture it's hard to imagine a time when language such as that Joyce used in Ulysses to create his rich characters would be judged by governments to be obscene and unpublishable.
The Most Dangerous Book is an elegant combination of criticism, history, and biography relating how Ulysses came to be written and published and how it finally was judged respectable. I've read the novel several times, have read several critical works on Joyce and his novel, have read the biographies and Joyce's letters, and yet Birmingham not only wrote the familiar story in a way that still engaged me but informed me of many facts and ways of thinking about the subject I wasn't aware of.
How many fans of Joyce don't know the story of how Sylvia Beach published the novel for him through her Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company? Birmingham's account of the Joyce-Beach friendship still adds a lot I didn't know.
How many admiring readers of Ulysses don't know that Joyce's wife Nora and her easy sensuality was the largest inspiration for Molly Bloom? Birmingham's portrait of their relationship provides new insight into their characters and relationship. As you might expect, the climax of the novel's troubled publication history was the famous obscenity trial presided over by Judge John M.
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Birmingham writes that serious readers who came into contact with Ulysses in the decade prior to the trial recognized its literary value. So it was no surprise that Woolsey, who loved literature, made a point of reading the entire novel, and that perspective allowed him to see that the objectionable material, when considered in light of the characters and the novel's rich thematic material, wasn't inserted with pornographic intent or meant as an aphrodisiac.
What I'd never realized was the story didn't end there; Birmingham also tells the full account of the appeal to the U. Court of Appeals, which upheld Woolsey's decision. I'd had this book for over a year, had received it as a gift. But I'd been a little slow to come to it because I thought the subject matter wouldn't add to my understanding of the novel and author. I was wrong. It's a rich, gripping read. Jun 17, Donna Davis rated it liked it Shelves: net-galley , pol-sc , reviewed , nonfiction.
This book took me a long time to read, and at first I didn't understand why, because I care a great deal about the First Amendment, and the period in question, which is close to the Russian Revolution and is at a time when both socialism and anarchism attract huge meeting halls full of people.
There's sharp reaction to that as well, hence the Espionage Act used as a club against little magazines that hardly anyone was reading anyway. Action and reaction were both potent forces. But it seems to me This book took me a long time to read, and at first I didn't understand why, because I care a great deal about the First Amendment, and the period in question, which is close to the Russian Revolution and is at a time when both socialism and anarchism attract huge meeting halls full of people.
But it seems to me that although Birmingham has done a great deal of research and found a lot of interesting contextual information, it has run away with the book. A really ruthless editor needs to take a meat axe to this tome and regain the focus on the topic at hand; Joyce and Ulysses disappear for long stretches, reappear briefly and are gone again.
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It is as if Birmingham has worked so hard and done so much research that he can't bear to whack any of it out in order to tighten up his vehicle. I've done research, and I can sympathize, but sympathy is not agreement. Focus, focus, focus. Context should be secondary, and the struggle to publish Ulysses should be primary. It isn't.