The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses

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9780143127543: The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses

Recipient of the 2015 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction

“The arrival of a significant young nonfiction writer . . . A measured yet bravura performance.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times


James Joyce’s big blue book, Ulysses, ushered in the modernist era and changed the novel for all time. But the genius of Ulysses was also its danger: it omitted absolutely nothing. Joyce, along with some of the most important publishers and writers of his era, had to fight for years to win the freedom to publish it. The Most Dangerous Book tells the remarkable story surrounding Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to the book’s landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933. Written for ardent Joyceans as well as novices who want to get to the heart of the greatest novel of the twentieth century, The Most Dangerous Book is a gripping examination of how the world came to say Yes to Ulysses.

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About the Author:

KEVIN BIRMINGHAM received his PhD in English from Harvard, where he is an instructor in the university’s writing program. This is his first book.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Kevin Birmingham

I N T R O D U C T I O N

 

When you open a book, you are already at the end of a long journey. It began with an author whose first challenge was to imagine the readers who would turn the unwritten pages. The author wanted to meet the audience’s expectations and draw the reader in. The book would have a voice, a perspective and a consistent style. It would be accessible. If the book has characters—be they simple or complex, sympathetic or repugnant—the author would make them believable. They would stay in character and speak in a consistent idiom. The spoken words would be in quotation marks. The characters’ thoughts and the story’s action would be clearly distinguishable, and when the author began writing, the story’s elements were sharpened. Clear boundaries staked out the pathways for the journey.

A publisher signed a contract with the author. The publisher researched the marketplace and weighed costs and risks against potential profits and demand. The publisher knew the trade. The publisher had published books before. The book had an editor who pruned and revised, who offered perspective and who sometimes said no. The book was probably advertised in various markets. The first copies were printed and bound months before publication day, and they were delivered without incident by the post office or private carriers. They were displayed openly in stores.

Whether the book is careless or thoughtful, disposable or durable, chances are the sales will dwindle. The printers will stop printing it, and the remaining copies will be sold off at a steep discount and left to languish in used bookstores. It will not change the way books are written, nor will it change the way you see yourself or the world around you. It will be swept up by the rising tide of culture and washed away. It will probably be forgotten.

If it is not forgotten—if it does change the way people see the world— reviewers and critics will be able to quote from its pages freely. Radio hosts will be able to mention the title on the air. Students will be able to check the book out of a library. Professors will be able to assign the book and deliver lectures on it without the fear of being demoted or dismissed. If you purchase the book, you will not be afraid to travel with it. No one will be arrested for printing it. No one will be monitored for distributing it. No one will go to prison for selling it. Wherever you live, your government probably protects this book against piracy. Your government has never issued a warrant for this book. Your government has never confiscated this book. Your government has never burned this book.

When you open James Joyce’s Ulysses, none of these things are true.

 

So much has been written about what’s exceptional within the pages of Joyce’s epic that we have lost sight of what happened to Ulysses itself. Scholars have examined the novel’s dense network of allusions, its museum of styles and its insight into the human mind so thoroughly that the scholarship buries what made Ulysses so scandalous: nothing, in Ulysses, is unspeakable. The book that many regard as the greatest novel in the English language—and possibly any language—was banned as obscene, officially or unofficially, throughout most of the English-speaking world for over a decade. Being forbidden is part of what made Joyce’s novel so transformative. Ulysses changed not only the course of literature in the century that followed, but the very definition of literature in the eyes of the law.

This is 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 that 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 transgressions of Ulysses were the first thing most people knew about it. A portion was burned in Paris while it was still only a manuscript draft, and it was convicted of obscenity in New York before it was even a book. Joyce’s woes inspired Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate running a small bookstore in Paris, to publish Ulysses when everyone else (including Virginia Woolf) refused. When it appeared in 1922, dozens of critics praised and vilified Joyce’s long-anticipated novel in unambiguous terms. Government authorities on both sides of the Atlantic confiscated and burned more than a thousand copies of Ulysses (the exact number will never be known) because Joyce’s big blue book was banned on British and American shores almost immediately. Other countries soon followed. Over the course of a decade, Ulysses became an underground sensation. It was literary contraband, a novel you could read only if you found a copy counterfeited by literary pirates or if you smuggled it past customs agents. Most copies came from Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach’s Paris bookstore, where, as one writer remembered, “Ulysses lay stacked like dynamite in a revolutionary cellar.” It was the archetype of a modernist revolution—it is, in fact, the primary reason why we think of modernism as revolutionary at all.

Modernism’s discordant, contrarian and sometimes violent aspects weren’t entirely new. What was new was that this cultural discord became a sustained movement, and it was Joyce who had taken modernism’s assorted experiments and turned them into a masterpiece. After Ulysses, modernist experimentation was no longer marginal. It was essential. Turmoil became the substance of beauty rather than the seed of chaos, and this peculiar aesthetic emerging from a more versatile sense of order seemed to usher in a new era. For what modernism rebelled against was entrenched empiricism, a century of all-too-confident belief in perpetual technocratic progress, in the ever-expanding limits of power and commerce, and in the order of things as tidy, sanitized and always available for public examination.

The enemy of the empirical is not the illogical. The enemy of the empirical is the secretive. All of the things empirical culture couldn’t utilize, didn’t want or refused to acknowledge were sequestered from the public sphere and classified as hazardous categories: the hidden, the uselessly subjective, the unspoken and the unspeakable. The apex of the secretive is the obscene. Obscenity is deeply, uselessly private—a category of thoughts, words and images so private, in fact, that to make it public is illegal. To claim that obscenity had some empirical, public value would have been absurd. It would have violated the confidence that supposedly built civilization. Ulysses was dangerous because it accepted no hierarchy between the empirical and the obscene, between our exterior and interior lives. It was dangerous because it demonstrated how a book could abolish secrecy’s power. It showed us that secrecy is the tool of doomed regimes and that secrets themselves are, as Joyce wrote, “tyrants, willing to be dethroned.” Ulysses dethroned them all.

For modernist writers, literature was a battle against an obsolete civilization, and nothing illustrated the stakes of modernism’s battle more clearly than the fact that its masterpiece was being burned. Censorship was the tyranny of established cultural standards. In the United States and Britain, the censorship regime was a diffuse enforcement network empowered by mid-nineteenth-century moral statutes. Laws against vices like obscenity were designed to control urban populations, and the primary enforcers of those laws were quasi-official vigilante organizations that flourished because urban centers were growing faster than governments could handle. Cities like London and New York maintained their tenuous order largely through societies for the “suppression” of various blights: beggars, prostitutes, vagrants, opium and cruelty to children and animals.

One of the most successful organizations was the London Society for the Suppression of Vice, which helped write the anti-obscenity laws it enforced. The problem with volunteer-based censorship regimes, however, was that their power would ebb and f low with moral fads. Fluctuations in vice-society membership and finances ensured that they were never as effective as they wanted to be—pornographers simply adapted to a boom-and-bust business cycle. British vice societies were spearheaded by aristocrats who funded legal proceedings and publicity campaigns that were orchestrated by a revolving door of volunteers who weren’t willing to do the unseemly work that stopping an illicit business required. They weren’t on the streets nabbing pornographers. They didn’t entrap suspects. They didn’t carry guns. They didn’t threaten or hound or rough anyone up.

Things were different in the United States, where the fight against obscenity could be brutal. From 1872 until his death in 1915, the single most important arbiter of what was and was not obscene was a man named Anthony Comstock. His forty-year dominance over artistic standards made him an icon, the personification of a cultural order that rejected the base impulses threatening both our salvation and our civilization. And lust, as Comstock explained, was the most destructive impulse.

 

Lust defiles the body, debauches the imagination, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, sears the conscience, hardens the heart, and damns the soul. It unnerves the arm, and steals away the elastic step. It robs the soul of manly virtues and imprints upon the mind of the youth visions that throughout life curse the man or woman.

 

Comstock saw human nature as a withering thing, a form of purity corrupted by the fallen world. His mechanism for rolling back the tide of lust was the United States Post Office, and his authority over the content of the letters, newspapers and magazines sent through the mail derived from a law that bears his name.

The 1873 Comstock Act made the distribution or advertisement of any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print or other publication of an indecent character” through the U.S. mail punishable by up to ten years in prison and a ten-thousand-dollar fine, and state laws throughout the country—“little Comstock Acts”—extended the ban to obscenity’s publication and sale. Armed with the power of the law, sworn in as a special agent of the Post Office and named the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), Comstock destroyed books by the ton and imprisoned thousands of pornographers. By the 1910s, his bushy muttonchops served a dual purpose: they hearkened back to the values of an older era, and they concealed the scar left by a pornographer’s knife. “You must hunt these men as you hunt rats,” Comstock said, “without mercy.”

Comstock was an instrument of God and the State, a guardian protecting vulnerable citizens from exotic influences, a defender of rigid principles over base impulses, of resolve over experimentation. He and his Society, in other words, represented much of what modernism opposed. By the time Comstock’s successor, John Sumner, took over the NYSSV in 1915, publishers big and small were voluntarily submitting manuscripts for the Society’s approval. Its power was so well established by World War I that Sumner was compelled to file criminal charges only in exceptional cases. Ulysses was one of them.

Joyce and his literary allies had to wage a battle against vigilantes, moralists, literary pirates, protective fathers, outraged husbands and a host of law enforcement officials—postal inspectors, customs agents, district attorneys, detectives, constables and crown prosecutors. The fight against charges of obscenity (which is still a crime) was about more than the right to publish sexually explicit material. It was a dimension of the larger struggle between state power and individual freedom that intensified in the early twentieth century, when more people began to challenge governmental control over whatever speech the state considered harmful. State control and moral control reinforced each other. Comstock’s era of moral surveillance contributed to the rise of the federal government (the Post Office was its cornerstone), and the government’s crackdown on subversive speech during and after World War I in turn helped the NYSSV expand its campaign against obscenity in the 1920s. Joyce, whether he liked it or not, was affiliated with anarchists, highbrows and the Irish—all suspect populations after 1917.

For the outspoken writers of the era, the battle lines were not drawn on the margins of art. They were central to it. When Joyce’s unseemly candor left him unable to find anyone willing to publish or print his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ezra Pound ranted in The Egoist, “If we can’t write plays, novels, poems or any other conceivable form of literature with the scientist’s freedom and privilege, with at least the chance of at least the scientist’s verity, then where in the world have we got to, and what is the use of anything, anything?”

Pound was still railing against the Comstock Act in the late 1920s, when he wrote to Supreme Court Chief Justice Taft to ask for help overturning a statute enacted, he insisted, by “an assembly of baboons and imbeciles.” Part of what made the Comstock Act so loathsome was that it underscored the fact that renegades and iconoclasts like Pound depended on the Post Office for their survival. For while modernism drew upon the turbulence surrounding World War I, when empires crumbled and millions moved across borders to exchange new ideas and radical styles, it was precisely its iconoclastic nature that made modernism beholden to the largest, most mundane government bureaucracy there was.

Modernists used mass cultural resources and marketing strategies even as they shunned the large audiences that inhibited controversy and experimentation. Rather than writing a novel for a million readers, Joyce said, he preferred to write novels that one person would read a million times. Modernists courted small numbers of avid, idiosyncratic readers scattered across countries and time zones, and one way to foster such a dedicated community was through boisterous magazines that could generate an ongoing creative exchange among far-f lung readers and writers. But because modernist magazine readerships were too small for most bookshops and newsstands to carry, artists like Joyce needed an extensive, government-subsidized distribution system to bring subscribers together. It was the Post Office that made it possible for avant-garde texts to circulate cheaply and openly to wherever their kindred readers lived. The Post Office was also the institution that could inspect, seize and burn those texts.

 

The disputes over the astonishing content of Joyce’s writing began years before Ulysses was published. We think of Ulysses as a mighty tome, but its public life began as a series of installments in a New York modernist magazine called The Little Review, the unlikely product of Wall Street money and Greenwich Village bohemia. The Little Review was the brainchild of an extravagant Chicagoan named Margaret Anderson who moved with her partner, Jane Heap, to Greenwich Village and cultivated a magazine devoted to art and ana...

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