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'Most Dangerous Book': A Rich Treasury Charting James Joyce's 'Ulysses'

There are many heroes in the tale of how James Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses, which was banned for over 10 years throughout the English-speaking world, finally won its long battle to be legally published, sold and read. Kevin Birmingham tells that extraordinary story in his new book about Ulysses, called The Most Dangerous Book.

As I said, there are many heroes in it, but James Joyce himself isn't one of them. Narcissistic, manipulative, mean, and dissolute, Joyce was a handful from the time he was a teenager. Here's an example: When Joyce was just 20, an intermediary arranged a meeting for him with W.B. Yeats, whom Joyce had publically criticized as a sentimental sell-out. Nonetheless, Yeats was gracious throughout their meeting, even offering to read the younger man's poetry. Joyce eventually stood up to leave and, in a parting shot, asked Yeats how old he was. Yeats said he was 36 and Joyce replied: "We have met too late. You are too old for me to have any effect on you." Arrogant, artsy undergraduates who think they're geniuses are a dime a dozen; Joyce, however, was that rarest of creatures — the snot who thinks he's a genius, who really is a genius and, in fact, goes on to write a novel that may well be the most important novel ever written in English.

Ulysses sparked a revolution because it left out nothing: for the single day it chronicles Leopold Bloom's wanderings around Dublin, we hear (among a thousand other things) about his daydreams, his erections, his newspaper reading, and the quality of his bowel movements. Ulysses also bombards us with different narrative styles and voices — most famously that of Bloom's wife, Molly, whose words about intercourse from a woman's point of view are now celebrated as one of literature's great soliloquies.

Birmingham's book about Ulysses is also expansive: as you'd expect, it chronicles Joyce's decades-long writing process, his private life with his common-law wife Nora Barnacle, and the extremes of the critical reception Ulysses received. When it was first published in book form in 1922 by Sylvia Beach — the owner of the legendary English-language bookshop in Paris, Shakespeare and Company --the novel was hailed in some reviews as the work of a "half-demented man of genius." In the course of reading Ulysses, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that she was "amused, stimulated, charmed" at first "& then puzzled bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples."

Beyond the standard expectations of literary history, however, Birmingham works in crucial information about, for instance, the role of the U.S. Post Office in enforcing censorship, and the grotesque medical treatments Joyce endured for his painful eye inflammations. Birmingham's book is a rich treasury, despite the fact that, occasionally, he's too clearly pleased with the snaky suppleness of his own sentences and the shock value of his "big reveal" that Joyce's chronic eye troubles were caused by syphilis.

Certainly that diagnosis is a contribution to Joycean biographical scholarship, but I wasn't as surprised by it as I was meant to be: given the youthful Joyce's "loose" lifestyle and his poverty, it's amazing he survived at all to write Ulysses, let alone Finnegan's Wake. To me, the more meaningful revelations in The Most Dangerous Book are the subtler ones: for example, Birmingham vividly traces how a network of courageous literary women — the aforementioned Sylvia Beach, as well as Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, who serialized parts of Ulysses in their magazine, The Little Review — risked jail time to help Joyce realize his masterpiece.

In a landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933, Ulysses was deemed to be "literature" by a patrician federal judge named John Woolsey, who was repelled by the gross excesses of Joyce's novel, but also unexpectedly moved by passages like Molly Bloom's soliloquy. Since then, generations of readers have been amazed, inspired, turned off and turned on by Ulysses. Birmingham helps his own readers see how an enlightened society came to the realization that the only fitting response to a work of art like Ulysses is (to quote Molly Bloom): "Yes."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.