Banned Books, Book Review, censorship, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, John Quinn, Kevin Birmingham, Lesbianism, Literature, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, Modernity, Paris, Politics, Sexuality, Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, The Little Review, The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, Ulysses
A book about James Joyce’s Ulysses had damn well better be interesting, and far more readable than Ulysses itself. In the case of The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham I’m happy to say both are the case.
There was a point about a year ago where I planned to have my entire future revolving around the novel Ulysses. I planned to undergo an independent study entirely dedicated to the book, my master’s level thesis was going to be about the novel and my eventual PhD program and subsequent years as a teacher would be devoted to teaching the novel. However sanity got the best of me and now I am just moderately fond of the book. Birmingham’s historic/cultural chronicle came to me as a Christmas present since, during my Ulysses high, I gathered every possible resource about the book I could. However, once the high died down, and grad school really began, the book rested on my shelf only to be picked up again once I had started a nice long break.
Birmingham is dealing with a difficult subject, not because of Joyce’s work, but more because of the academic cult following that surrounds the heavy tome. He notes in the Epilogue:
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.
Birmingham reveals the precarious position he has placed himself in, for not only is this work his first published book, it is a book that hundreds of PhD’s across the globe will have to read and assess to determine whether he has accomplished a sound academic achievement. For my two cents, did I really just type that, I believe The Most Dangerous Book, does a damn good job.
Birmingham’s book is not the work of a PhD attempting to determine whether or not Ulysses’ prose does not satisfy a similar metric scale in the Circe chapter of the Original Odyssey, nor does it try to argue that Joyce’s work shares similar symbolic strategies to Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. All that the book tries to accomplish, all this it does, is place Ulysses into the cultural time period and try to demonstrate how it was written, how it was published, how the public and government reacted to the text, and how the work influenced the intelligentsia and zeitgeist. The strongest aspect of the book however, is that it is written for a layman. Birmingham does not suppose that his reader has already tackled that monster of a book and so he attempts to explain how the book is operating, citing passage frequently so his reader is able to understand the oddity and beauty of the text.
Anyone that hasn’t read Ulysses, or even has no intention to do so, should at least read Birmingham’s book so that they may understand how it has permanently altered our society and culture. As I’ve written about in a previous essay, Ulysses permanently changed what was possible in narratives through its persistent unapologetic description of the bodily functions. Birmingham is able to contextualize the scandal of such actions through solid historical fact without boring his audience:
The history of the U.S. censorship regime began in earnest in 1873, when Anthony Comstock boarded a train to Washington D.C., with a draft of a federal law in his pocket and a satchel filled with his dirtiest pornography. (111).
As one continues Birmingham provides a brief history of Comstock and how he shaped one of the, if such a word is permissible, greatest censorship campaigns in American history. So much so that we learn the Post office became the central power figure in censoring, not just Ulysses but any book or magazine that was deemed “obscene” by the organization.
This review will be brief and I’ll add just a few more interesting facts to inspire enough curiosity. Birmingham’s book is not centered on Joyce himself, while the man does occupy plenty of territory; Joyce himself is only one of the players in the larger performance that is the publishing of Ulysses. The character of Ezra Pound at first seems to be the real rock star of the story, for it was Pound who believed and fought for Joyce, connecting him to well connected publishers and getting his works sent into the magazine in America that initially published the book. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the head publishers of The Little Review star in several chapters, and their starving selves assume a real pathos as you observe their dedication to art. Sylvia Beach, the woman who founded Shakespeare & Company, pops in and out of the story only to be snubbed by Joyce after she has been the first publisher to print the book in its entirety. It should be noted homosexuality played a large part in the writing of Ulysses; the last three women mentioned were all homosexuals. John Quinn is a man you’ve most likely never heard of, but he was responsible for most of Ulysses’s legal defense and financial backer, not to mention being one of the first American art collectors to recognize the works of a little painter called Picasso, you might have heard of him, I think he did the paintings with lilies. (I hope at least ONE art student gets that joke). And alongside Joyce are other writers of the period. T.S. Eliot marveled at Ulysses, while Virginia Wolf wobbled between despising the book and taking enough inspiration from it to write Mrs. Dalloway. Ernest Hemmingway makes a brief appearance as a smuggler, taking copies of the book into America, and F. Scott. Fitzgerald appears for a split second as an obsessive fanboy, drawing Joyce at a dinner party and then almost throwing himself off a balcony to impress the man. Joyce’s response is priceless by the way: “That young man must be mad, […] I’m afraid he’ll do himself some injury” (222).
It’s a temptation every time I write a review for a book to cite quote after quote to demonstrate, to prove to the invisible hordes of people on the internet that happen to pass through this blog, that a book is not just worth your time, it’s an eye opening experience to shake your very conception of reality. The Most Dangerous Book follows the same method I have tried to accomplish in this blog: to make the great works of literature attainable and precious to everyone who has a moment to listen. You’ll most likely never get through Ulysses, or even get to the book in your lifetime, but at the very least Birmingham’s book is able to dig into the importance of the novel and not bore his reader. And that’s all you could ever ask for in a book about a book that’s damn near impossible to read.
I’ll end with a quote:
He had a point. Narratives are the way we make sense of the world. We parcel existence into events and string them into cause-and-effect sequences. The chemist comparing controls and variables and the child scalded by a hot stove are both understanding the world through narrative. Novels are important because they turn the basic conceptual framework into an art form. A beautiful narrative arc reassures us that the baffling events around us are meaningful—and this is why Ulysses appeared to be an instrument of chaos, an anarchist bomb. To disrupt the narrative was to disrupt the narrative method was to disrupt the order of things. Joyce, it seemed, wasn’t devoted to reality. He appeared to be sweeping it away.
If you were a modernist—if you believed the order of things was already gone—you thought differently. T.S. Eliot defended Ulysses by objecting to its critics’ premise. Life in the age of world war was no longer amenable to the narrative method, and yet Ulysses showed us that narratives weren’t the only way to create order. Existence could be layered. Instead of a sequence, the world was an epiphany. Instead of a tradition, civilization was a day. The chaos of modernity demanded a new conceptual method to make sense of the contemporary world, to make life possible for art. And that is what Ulysses gave us. (226-7).
The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses is available at Amazon, and wherever books are sold locally.
Birmingham, Kevin. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.
New York: The Penguin Press, 2014. Print.
I’ve included a link to a review of this book by Slate in case my own effort here isn’t enough to convince you of the merits of Birmingham’s book. Enjoy: