12 June 2014
The Most Dangerous Book
For more than a decade, the book that literary critics now consider the most important novel in the English language was illegal to own, sell, advertise or purchase in most of the English-speaking world. 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. All of the minutiae of Leopold Bloom’s day, including its unspeakable details, unfold with careful precision in its pages. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice immediately banned the novel as �obscene, lewd, and lascivious.” 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 its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.
Literary historian Kevin Birmingham follows Joyce’s years as a young writer, his feverish work on his literary masterpiece, and his ardent love affair with Nora Barnacle, the model for Molly Bloom. Joyce and Nora socialized with literary greats like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Beach. Their support helped Joyce fight an array of anti-vice crusaders while his book was disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned in the United States and Britain. The long struggle for publication added to the growing pressures of Joyce’s deteriorating eyesight, finances and home life.
Salvation finally came from the partnership of Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, and Morris Ernst, a dogged civil liberties lawyer. With their stewardship, the case ultimately rested on the literary merit of Joyce’s master work. The sixty-year-old judicial practices governing obscenity in the United States were overturned because a federal judge could get inside Molly Bloom’s head.
Birmingham’s archival work brings to light new information about both Joyce and the story surrounding Ulysses. 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.
Full confession time: I have not actually read the entirety of James Joyce's Ulysses. I know, right? Trust me, I chip away at it every year but my fast-reading brain just cries every time I make it read Ulysses because it's like reading a foreign language (to me). It lasts about 4 pages before rebelling and going wandering for a book that actually reads like proper English. I'll grab my copy of Ulysses on Bloomsday next week, along with one of the many guidebooks/keys that I've accumulated, and get a bit further in the novel. I actually know what's going on in all the episodes of Ulysses because I've read all those guides - I haven't decided if that's good or bad yet.
Which brings me to The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham. Ulysses has what is likely the most infamous publication history of any modern novel. Joyce wrote or re-wrote much of the book while enduring horrible pain from eye disease. The book was banned before even completed in both the UK and the US simply on the basis of the parts published in periodicals. Multiple court cases regarding the publication of such an "obscene" work. Birmingham took all the material - personal letters, legal briefs, manuscripts, etc. - and turned out a really solid, readable look at the publishing history of a (very) divisive book. Wherever you fall on the Ulysses continuum (from "this is amazing and groundbreaking" to "this is puerile garbage" ) it's worth a read to understand how government-sanctioned censorship came about and how it began to recede.
Do you have to have read Ulysses to understand The Most Dangerous Book? Nope. As long as you know the basic summaries for Homer's The Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses you're good because Birmingham explains the salient parts. He provides a little bit of Joyce biography (if you're squeamish about eyeballs, there are a few descriptions of Joyce's harrowing eye surgeries, ow ow ow), a little bit of literary criticism, a little bit US Law history regarding the origin of the obscenity laws, and snippets of Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Dubliners (just one of Finnegan's Wake). Read it to find out why one of our most sacred rights in the United States - the right to Freedom of Speech - was not used to defend or protect material some high-moral muck-a-muck decided was "obscene." It brought to mind the articles I read about book challenges at schools and libraries because some of the rhetoric hasn't changed in almost 80 years.
My only complaint about The Most Dangerous Book is that the narrative feels a bit unfinished at the end - what happened to Miss Weaver after the British government stopped banning Ulysses? What did the Ulysses case mean for other writers of work that had been banned in the US? What about the book pirater (jerk)? Or the Booklegger? Or Slyvia Beach, who did so much for Joyce until he pissed her off? It sort of ends with Ulysses being legalized (yay!) but what happens to all the real people whose lives and opinions came to bear on the book and it's publication? Maybe one more chapter would have been good. We got so much information about all the major players pre-Ulysses we need more post for balance.
Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher.