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. 

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.

Ulysses, however, wasn’t a politically radical text. Instead, Joyce used an unapologetically forward-thinking brand of Imagism in service of the filthiest writing ever seen in a literary magazine to that point. Fancying his book “an epic of the human body,” he filled it with every conceivable excretion and referenced a panoply of sex acts, from the mundane to the surreal. Moreover, its opening lines, a mock invocation of the Catholic mass over a shaving bowl, announced Joyce’s intention to revel in heresy. Obscenity was the lifeblood of Ulysses, the proof that it truly comprehended all human experience. “To artists like Joyce,” Birmingham writes, “who considered free expression sacrosanct, censorship epitomized the tyranny of state power. … To publish a gratuitously obscene text—to deny ‘obscenity’ as a legitimate category altogether—was a way to expose and reject the arbitrary base of all state power. It was a form of literary anarchy.”

The novel was eventually published in 1922 by Shakespeare and Company, another literary institution (this one in Paris) run by a strong-willed American woman. Sylvia Beach had opened her store in 1919, and it quickly became the Lost Generation’s literary locus, functioning as a library and mailing address for itinerant artists. Her version of Ulysses, with its iconic blue cover and monolithic title font, was priced up to 10 times higher than the normal rate for a new book, but was nevertheless so popular that she had to remove a copy from her store window to prevent mob scenes. By that point the novel had become legendary, both politically and artistically. It was banned and burned by the U.S. Customs agency, bootlegged and distributed like a samizdat, and eventually defended by the publisher Bennett Cerf nearly a decade after it originally went to press.

Cerf was a businessman above all. Having developed the Modern Library publishing house and then broadened it into the Random House empire, he knew that Ulysses stood to sell well if it were actually allowed to. So in the early ’30s he asked his lawyer, Morris Ernst, to essentially goad the federal government into suing him over it. They imported copies and alerted Customs that it was about to land on American shores, and, in one case, after agents missed a copy on its way off a ship, Cerf took the package to the Customs office himself and demanded that they open it and seize the contents.

Ernst and Cerf’s defense of Ulysses hinged on its literary reputation rather than its purported immorality: They contested that a book of indisputable literary value could not, by definition, be considered indecent. Then they set out to prove the book’s intellectual worth by rounding up scholars’ opinions. This required the case’s presiding judge, John Woolsey, to actually read the book in its entirety, not only the handpicked salacious selections that previous prosecutors had submitted as evidence. Birmingham’s depiction of this undertaking is a marvelous bit of close-up narrative history. Equipped with the very kinds of books that I listed at the outset of this review (including Gilbert’s), Woolsey took weeks to read the novel at home before the trial began, and struggled with its challenging syntax while arriving at a grudging respect for Joyce’s accomplishment. Referring to the famous final section of the novel, told in the interior voice of Leopold Bloom’s unfaithful wife, Molly, Woolsey acknowledged, “it may represent the moods of a woman of that sort. That is what disturbs me. I seem to understand it.”

Molly’s chapter—“Penelope” by its Homeric classification—was a centerpiece of the prosecution’s argument. As she falls asleep next to her husband, Molly Bloom cycles through her relationship with Leopold and her affair with a brawny sleazeball-about-town named Blazes Boylan. The 40-page section contains only eight paragraphs and no punctuation, but it also contains bursts like this:

O Lord I must stretch myself I wished he was here or somebody to let myself go with and come again like that I feel all fire inside me or if I could dream it when he made me spend the 2nd time tickling me behind with his fingers I was coming for about 5 minutes with my legs round him I had to hug him after O Lord I wanted to shout out all sorts of things fuck or shit or anything at all

This memory of a rapturous orgasm is just a drop in a flood of sensual recollections—only lines earlier, Molly recalls the pain of nursing, the smell of dank men’s bathrooms, and the bitter Dublin cold after a winter party. The lack of punctuation makes it all flow together, torrential and undifferentiated. It’s an overwhelming reading experience, prurient at times but emotionally relentless. Any reader in search of smut would surely feel cheated, unless they’re aroused by hundreds of impressionistic lines about a child’s death (Bloom and Molly lost an 11-day-old son, Rudy), a military upbringing in Gibraltar, and conflicted feelings about femininity and marriage. The point of Molly’s soliloquy, and the point of Ulysses as a whole, is that the entirety of existence, even a seemingly inconsequential midsummer day, is suffused with just such an ocean of memories, emotions, and history. They crash together while we eat, shit, and have sex. They are the background for our every heartache and aimless walk. Even the plainest or most cast-off among us are worthy of The Odyssey, because our perceptions and feelings are as deep and immense as Odysseus’s.

Woolsey agreed. And for that reason alone there is, right now, in your nearest library or corporate bookstore, a 700-page journey that every serious reader should take at least once in their life. There are millions of scholarly words out there that might make the trip a little less confusing, but, having read quite a bit of them, I honestly can’t think of a better argument for the book’s greatness than the one that Morris Ernst teased out during the trial. “Your honor,” Birmingham quotes him as saying, “while arguing to win this case I thought I was intent only on this book, but frankly, while pleading before you, I’ve also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.”

The judge seemed to grasp his point. “I have listened as intently as I know how,” Woolsey replied, “but I must confess that while listening to you I’ve been thinking about the Hepplewhite chair behind you.”

“That, Judge,” said the lawyer, “is the essence of Ulysses.”

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham. Penguin.

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