Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book:
The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses
James Joyce’s enigmatic masterpiece novel Ulysses was first published in book form in France in 1922. Portions of the novel had by then already appeared as magazine excerpts in the United States and Great Britain. The previous year, a court in the United States had declared several such excerpts obscene, and British authorities followed suit in 1923. In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham describes the furor which the novel provoked and the scheming that was required to bring the novel to readers.
Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, characterizes his work as the “biography of a book” (p.2). Its core is the twofold story of the many benefactors who aided Joyce in maneuvering around publication obstacles; and of the evolution of legal standards for judging literature claimed to be obscene. Birmingham also provides much insight into Joyce the author, his view of art, and the World War I era literary world in which he operated. The book, Birmingham’s first, further serves as a useful introduction to Ulysses itself for those readers, myself emphatically included, who have not yet garnered the courage to tackle Joyce’s masterpiece.
Ulysses depicted a single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. On the surface, the novel follows three central characters, Stephen Daedalus, Leopold Bloom, and his wife Molly Bloom. But Ulysses is also a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, with the three main characters serving as modern versions of Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. Peering into the 20th century through what Birmingham terms the “cracked looking glass of antiquity” (p.54), Joyce sought to capture both the erotic pleasures and intense pains of the human body; fornication and masturbation, defecation and disease were all part of the human experience that Joyce sought to convey. He even termed his work an “epic of the human body” (p.14).
Treating sexuality in a more forthright manner than what public authorities in the United States and Great Britain were willing to countenance — sex at the time “just wasn’t something a legitimate novelist portrayed” (p.64) — Ulysses was deemed a threat to public morality, and was subject to censorship, confiscation and book burning spectacles. But the charges levied against Ulysses were about “more than the right to publish sexually explicit material” (p.6), Birmingham contends. They also involved a clash between two rising forces, modern print culture and modern governmental regulatory power, and were thus part of a larger struggle between state authority 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” (p.6).
There is a meandering quality to much of Birmingham’s narrative, which shifts back and forth between Joyce himself, his literary friends and supporters, and those who challenged Ulysses in the name of public morality. At times, it is difficult to tie these threads together. But the book regains its footing in a final section describing the definitive trial and landmark 1934 judicial ruling, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses, which held that the novel was not obscene. The decision constituted the last significant hurdle for Joyce’s book, after which it circulated freely to readers in the United States and elsewhere. In his section on this case, Birmingham’s central point comes into full focus: Ulysses changed not only the course of literature but also the “very definition of literature in the eyes of the law” (p.2).
* * *
James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, educated at Catholic schools and University College, Dublin. As a boy, Joyce and his family moved so frequently within Dublin that Joyce could plausibly claim to know almost all the city’s neighborhoods. But Joyce spent little of his professional career in Dublin. Sometime in 1903 or 1904, Joyce met and fell in love with Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from rural Galway then working in a Dublin hotel. Barnacle followed Joyce across Europe, bore their children, inspired his literary talent, and eventually became his wife. Joyce and Barnacle lived for several years in the Italian port city of Trieste, then in Zurich and Rome. But the two are best known for their time in Paris, where Joyce became one of the most renowned expatriate writers of the so-called Lost Generation. In 1914, Joyce published his first book, Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories. Two years later, he completed his first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While not a major commercial success, the book caught the attention of the American poet, Ezra Pound, then living in London. During this time, Joyce also began writing Ulysses.
The single day depicted in the novel, June 16, 1904, was the day that Joyce and Barnacle first met. Although there may have been single-day novels before Ulysses, “no one thought of a day as an epic. Joyce was planning to turn a single day into a recursive unit of dazzling complexity in which the circadian part was simultaneously the epochal whole. A June day in Dublin would be a fractal of Western civilization” (p.55). The idea of Homeric correspondences and embedding references to the Odyssey into early 20th century Dublin may seem “indulgent,” Birmingham writes, yet Joyce executed it “so subtly that the novel can become a scavenger hunt for pedants . . . Some allusions are so obscure that their pleasure seems to reside in their remaining hidden” (p.130-31).
In the early 20th century, censors sought to ban obscene works in part to protect the sensibilities of women and children, especially in large urban centers like London and New York. It is thus ironic that strong and forward- minded women are central to Birmingham’s story, standing behind Joyce and assuming the considerable risks which the effort to publish Ulysses entailed. The first two, Americans Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were co-publishers of an avant-garde magazine, The Little Review, an “unlikely product of Wall Street money and Greenwich Village bohemia” (p.7-8), and one of several small, “do-it-yourself” magazines which Birmingham describes as “outposts of modernism” (p.71). From London, Erza Pound linked Joyce to Anderson and Heap, and The Little Review began to publish Ulysses in 1918 in serial form.
In 1921, New York postal authorities sought to confiscate portions of Ulysses published in The Little Review under the authority of the Comstock Act, an 1873 statute that made it a crime, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to utilize the United States mail to distribute or advertise obscene, lewd or lascivious materials. The Comstock Act adopted the “Hicklin rule” for determining obscenity, a definition from an 1868 English case, Regina v. Hicklin: “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (p.168).
The Hicklin rule’s emphasis upon “tendency” to deprave and corrupt defined obscenity by a work’s potential effects on “society’s most susceptible readers – anyone with a mind ‘open’ to ‘immoral influences.’ . . . Lecherous readers and excitable teenage daughters could deprave and corrupt the most sophisticated literary intent” (p.168). The Hicklin rule further permitted judges to look at individual words or passages without considering their place in the work as a whole and without considering the work’s artistic or literary value. Finding that portions of Ulysses under review were obscene under the Hicklin rule, a New York court sentenced Anderson and Heap to 10 days in prison or $100 fines. The Post Office sent seized copies of The Little Review to the Salvation Army, “where fallen women in reform programs were instructed to tear them apart” (p.197). The court’s decision served as a ban on publication and distribution of Ulysses in the United States for another 10 years.
The court’s decision also highlighted the paradoxical role of the Post Office in the early 20th century. Although the postal service “made it possible for avant-garde texts to circulate cheaply and openly to wherever their kindred readers lived,” it was also the institution that could “inspect, seize and burn those texts” (p.7). Moreover, government suppression of sexually explicit material in the United States during and immediately after World War I shaded into its efforts to stamp out political radicalism. Ulysses encountered obstacles to publication in the United States not so much because “vigilantes were searching for pornography but because government censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists” (p.109).
Meanwhile, in Great Britain, Harriet Shaw Weaver, a “prim London spinster” (p.12) published Ulysses in serial form in a similarly obscure London publication, The Egoist, also supported by Erza Pound. After Leonard and Virginia Woolf refused to publish Ulysses in Britain, Weaver imported a full version of the novel from France. In 1923, Sir Archibald Bodkin, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, concluded that Ulysses was “filthy” and that “filthy books are not allowed to be imported into this country” (p.253; Bodkin also vigorously prosecuted war resisters during World War I, as discussed in Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, reviewed here in November 2014). Sir Archibald’s ruling authorized British authorities to seize and burn in the “King’s Chimney” 500 copies of Ulysses coming from France.
The copies subject to Bodkin’s ruling had been printed at the behest of Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate who founded the iconic Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, a “hybrid space, something between an open café and an ensconced literary salon” (p.150), and a home away from home for Joyce, the young Ernest Hemmingway, and other members of the Lost Generation of expatriate writers. After Beach became the first to publish Ulysses in book form in 1922, she went on to publish eight editions of the novel and Shakespeare & Company “became a pilgrimage destination for budding Joyceans, several of whom asked Miss Beach if they could move to Paris and work for her” (p.260).
Over the next decade, Joyce’s novel became an “underground sensation” (p.3), banned implicitly in the United States and explicitly in Great Britain. Editions of Ulysses were smuggled from France into the United States, often through Canada. The book 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” (p.3). Throughout the decade, Joyce’s health deteriorated appreciably. He had multiple eye problems and, despite numerous ocular surgeries – described in jarringly gruesome detail here — he lost his sight. He also contracted syphilis. By the mid-1920s, Birmingham writes, Joyce was “already an old man. The ashplant cane that he had used for swagger as a young bachelor in Dublin became a blind man’s cane in Paris. Strangers helped him cross the street, and he bumped into furniture as he navigated through his own apartment” (p.289).
* * *
In 1932, Beach relinquished her claims for royalties from Ulysses. The upcoming New York publishing firm, Random House, under its ambitious young owner Bennett Cerf, then signed a contract with Joyce for publication and distribution rights in the United States, even though the 1921 court decision still served as a ban on distribution of the novel. To formulate a test case, Random House’s attorney, Morris Ernst, a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, almost begged Customs inspectors to confiscate a copy of Ulysses. Initially, an inspector responded that “everybody brings that [Ulysses] in. We don’t pay attention to it” (p.306). But the book was seized and, some seven months later, the United States Attorney in New York brought a case for forfeiture and confiscation under a statute that allowed an action against the book itself, rather than its publishers or importers. The United States Attorney instituted the test case in the fall of 1933, a few short months after the first book burnings in Nazi Germany.
The case was assigned to Judge John Woolsey, a direct descendant of the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards. Ernst sought to convince Judge Woolsey that the first amendment to the United States Constitution should serve to protect artistic as well as political expression and that the Hicklin rule should be discarded. Under Ernst’s argument, Ulysses merited first amendment protection as a serious literary work, “’too precious’ to be sacrificed to unsophisticated readers” (p.320). Ernst went on to contend that obscenity was a “living standard.” Even if Ulysses had been obscene at the time The Little Review excerpts had been condemned a decade earlier, it could still be protected expression in 1933, given the vast changes in public morality standards since The Little Review ruling.
Unlike the judges who had considered The Little Review excerpts, Judge Woolsey took the time to read the novel and ended up agreeing with Ernst. He found portions of the book “disgusting” with “many words usually considered dirty.” But he found nothing that amounted to “dirt for dirt’s sake” (p.329). Rather, each word of the book:
contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers. . . when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture? (p.329).
Answering his question in the negative, Judge Woolsey ruled that Joyce’s novel was not obscene and could be admitted into the United States.
A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge’s Woolsey’s decision, 2-1. The majority consisted of two of the most renowned jurists of the era, Learned Hand, who had been pushing for a more modern definition of obscenity for years; and his cousin, Augustus Hand, who wrote the majority opinion. Once the appeals court issued its decision, Cerf inserted Judge Woolsey’s decision into the Random House printings of the novel, making it arguably the most widely distributed judicial opinion in history. Two years later, the trial and appellate court decisions in the United States influenced Britain to abandon the 1868 Hicklin rule. Obscenity in Britain would no longer be a matter of identifying a book’s tendency to deprave and corrupt. Rather, the government must “consider intent and context – the character of a book was all contingent” (p.336).
United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses established a test for determining whether a work is obscene and thus outside the protection of the first amendment, that, in somewhat modified form, still applies today in the United States. This test requires a court to consider: (1) the literary worth of the work as a whole, not just selected excerpts; (2) the effect on an average reader, rather than an overly sensitive one; and (3) evolving contemporary community standards. The decision, Birmingham argues, removed “all barriers to art” and led to “unfettered freedom of artistic form, style and content – literary freedoms that were as political as any speech protected by the First Amendment” (p.11).
* * *
It is an open question whether Birmingham’s book will inspire readers who have not yet read Joyce’s masterwork to do so. But even those reluctant to undertake Joyce’s work should appreciate Birmingham’s account of how forward-minded early 20th century publishers and members of the literary world schemed to bring Ulysses to the light of day; and how judicial standards evolved to allow room for literary works treating human sexuality candidly and openly.
Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
July 29, 2016