James Joyce’s Ulysses stands today as one of the most critically lauded novels ever written – despite the fact that it’s difficult to read and more difficult to understand – which has, to some extent, papered over its tortuous path to the marketplace. When Joyce was first writing the novel, it was serialized in parts in a literary periodical called The Little Review, which then ran afoul of U.S. obscenity laws, leading eventually to the book’s banning before it had even been published. In 1933, Random House, at the time a relatively new publisher founded by the owners of the Modern Library imprint, decided to publish Ulysses and force a judicial hearing on the book’s legality. In the resulting case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Judge John Woolsey ruled that Ulysses was not obscene, marking one of the first big victories against U.S. obscenity laws, including the Comstock Act, which made sending materials deemed obscene through the mails a federal crime.
Kevin Birmingham recounts the legal battles over Ulysses in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, weaving that story into one about the book’s original authorship, including Joyce’s health problems and eccentricities. The book may have gone a bit overboard in detailing Joyce’s personal life – I really didn’t need to hear excerpts of the dirty letters he and his partner Nora sent to each other – but the details around the book’s history and the Puritanical extremes of American laws at the time are indispensable to anyone who’s ever read a banned book.
Joyce is a giant among authors today for all four of his major works, but had difficulty finding a publisher for his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or his collection of short stories, Dubliners, each of which also ran afoul of authorities but also lacked any obvious commercial appeal. Even when published, the works languished on the market for several years, leaving Joyce, obsessed with his novel and spending what money he had on drink, financially dependent on various patrons who wished to see Ulysses completed. He began writing the book in 1914, published the first episode in The Little Review in 1918, and saw the novel published as a whole in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, the owner of Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co. (The Paris bookshop by that name today is named for Beach’s shop, which closed in 1941 after Beach was sent to an internment camp.) Copies of the banned book circulated for nearly a decade, with multiple seizures and burnings by overzealous authorities, until the 1933 ruling that cleared the way for its publication and unlikely status as a bestseller.
Joyce received some money from the serialization but wasn’t always aware of the self-censorship of his sort-of friend and advocate Ezra Pound, who looms large in the book for his role in spreading the gospel of Joyce while appearing to hold a sort of professional jealousy of the Irishman. Even the first full edition of Ulysses was rife with mistakes – Wikipedia cites Joyce scholar Jack Dalton as saying it contained “over two thousand errors” – and its publication history has always been complicated by Joyce’s deliberately obscure prose and the messy handwritten manuscript he handed over to a series of typists as he was writing. The attempts of Pound and others to soften the parts of Joyce’s work deemed “offensive” were futile, as Joyce wanted the book to offend, both because he wrote much of this novel (the first major work of modernism) to resemble thought in the mind before it became formal speech, and because he had a puerile obsession with bodily functions.
Yet the Nausicaa episode, the one at the heart of the eventual trial, is also one of the book’s most literary and most abstruse to readers. Leopold Bloom masturbates as he watches a young woman sitting on the beach, exposing her legs and bloomers to him deliberately when she realizes he’s looking at her, but Joyce couches it in obscure language and makes it unclear how much of the episode is real and how much is happening in Bloom’s mind. Similarly, the final episode, Penelope, is a fifty-page internal monologue from Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, broken into just eight sentences (and with only two periods at that), where, among other things, she admits she was “fucked yes and damn well fucked” by another man, yet the “obscenity” is so thoroughly buried within the long, hard-to-follow text, that arguments around its offensiveness had to isolate the “dirty” parts rather than considering them as a whole – because, in reality, if you read the work straight through to try to get to anything salacious you’d be too exhausted to be titillated by the handful of descriptions of sex. Those arguments eventually carried the day in Woolsley’s oft-reprinted opinion on the matter.
Birmingham gives great detail on the business end of Ulysses, from its publication history to smuggling efforts to get it around censorship in the U.S. and eventually Great Britain, as well as much information on the fundamentalists in various anti-vice societies who helped write and enforce the draconian laws that could ban a book on the basis of a single complaint. The founder of the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock (later U.S. Postal Inspector), and his successor, John Sumner, abused powers they should never have been granted, trampling on the First Amendment to censor and destroy any materials they found objectionable, including early works on contraception and abortion. While Comstock died before the first episode of Ulysses appeared in print, he set up the regime that allowed Sumner and others to suppress the book in part or whole for fifteen years, even though by 1923 it had been widely praised (and panned) by well-known authors, poets, and literary critics. These passages end up some of the strongest in Birmingham’s book, better than the details of Joyce’s life with Nora, as is the brief section on the beginnings of Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s last novel and one of the most difficult reads in English literature (or so I’m told, since I never got past page one).
Around the same time I listened to Birmingham’s book on audio, I read Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and a book so heavily inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses it felt highly derivative to me. McBride writes in a style that mimics Joyce’s pre-speech efforts – McBride herself has said she wanted to voice thought before it became thought – to tell the story of a girl whose brother undergoes a drastic surgery to remove a brain tumor when he’s still a toddler (before she’s born), an event that shapes her entire life as well. The narrator’s destructive relationship with her born-again mother (the book has a strongly anti-religious bent) leads to her having sex with her uncle at 13, going to college, becoming a promiscuous alcoholic, being raped twice, and pulling an Edna Pontellier. Beyond the aggravating prose, the book is one-note, dismal and hopeless, the story of a path determined before birth, a girl who can only gain agency by destroying herself. It may be realistic, but that doesn’t make it something I’d want to read.