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The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses Hardcover – June 12, 2014
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Convinced that Joyce’s Ulysses contained “unmitigated filth and obscenity,” Sir Archibald Bodkin was determined in 1922 to burn all copies already in the UK and to ban importation of additional copies. Birmingham here tells the story of how Bodkin and his American counterparts (John Sumner and Anthony Comstock) lost the battle to keep Joyce’s explosive book out of readers’ hands. To be sure, Birmingham starts by recounting Joyce’s travails in simply writing the book. But others (including Ellmann, Gorman, and Bowker) have already examined that torturous composition process. What Birmingham delivers for the first time is a complete account of the legal war waged—chiefly by publisher Bennett Cerf and attorney Morris Ernst—to get Joyce’s masterpiece past British and American obscenity laws. Readers dismayed by the rising tide of pornography may view the obscenity laws breached for Joyce’s high art less dismissively than does Birmingham. But for readers who value Ulysses for the revolution it effected in fiction, Birmingham has chronicled an epoch-making triumph for literature. --Bryce Christensen
Dwight Garner, The New York Times:
"Kevin Birmingham’s new book about the long censorship fight over James Joyce’s Ulysses braids eight or nine good stories into one mighty strand... The best story that’s told… may be that of the arrival of a significant young nonfiction writer. Mr. Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, appears fully formed in this, his first book. The historian and the writer in him are utterly in sync. He marches through this material with authority and grace, an instinct for detail and smacking quotation and a fair amount of wit. It’s a measured yet bravura performance."
Rachel Shteir, The New York Times Book Review:
“So it is all the more impressive that this young Harvard Ph.D. in English has written a grand, readable adventure story about the novel’s legal troubles… Birmingham spent years sifting through archives. It shows. He has read Ulysses deeply, borrowing its organizing principles, telescoping some moments, amplifying others, jumping from character to character, continent to continent, subject to subject, text analysis to literary history. This all makes The Most Dangerous Book dynamic.”
Michael Dirda, The Washington Post:
“Birmingham has produced an excellent work of consolidation…. [A] lively history …. The Most Dangerous Book is impressively
researched and especially useful for its meticulous accounts of various legal battles. It is meant to be fun to read and, setting aside my fogeyish cavils, it is.”
“[G]ripping. Like the novel which it takes as its subject, it deserves to be read.”
The New Yorker:
“Terrific…. The Most Dangerous Book is the fullest account anybody has made of the publication history of Ulysses. Birmingham’s brilliant study makes you realize how important owning this book, the physical book, has always been to people."
“Birmingham recounts this story with a richness of detail and dramatic verve unexpected of literary history, making one almost nostalgic for the bad old days, when a book could be still be dangerous.”
The Wall Street Journal:
“The story of Ulysses has been told before, but not with Mr. Birmingham's thoroughness. The Most Dangerous Book makes use of newspaper reports, court documents, letters and the existing Joyce biographies. It looks back to a time ‘when novelists tested the limits of the law and when novels were dangerous enough to be burned’ and makes one almost nostalgic for it.”
Dallas Morning News:
“Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about Ulysses since its publication. Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book is a splendid addition…. this book has groundbreaking new archival research, and it thrills like a courtroom drama.”
“I am not a Joycean. But I loved Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book anyway. You don’t need to be a Bloomsday devotee to enjoy or profit mightily from it. Birmingham… writes with fluidity and a surprising eye for fun. He probably has read through the mountains of books and scholarly articles on Ulysses and seems obsessed with the book itself, but wears it all lightly. [A] vivid narrative [that]…makes you want to go back and read—and treasure—Joyce’s novel because he liberally salts the novel’s backstory with memorable anecdotes and apercus, especially at the close of each chapter.”
“Lively and engrossing.”
“[A] deeply fun work of scholarship that rescues Ulysses from the superlatives and academic battles that shroud its fundamental unruliness and humanity.”
“Astute and gorgeously written…. [The] battle for Ulysses…is a story that, as Birmingham puts it, forced the world to ‘recognize that beauty is deeper than pleasure and that art is larger than beauty.’ He has done it justice.”
Chronicle of Higher Education:
“An essential, thoroughly researched addition to Joyceana and a consistently engaging narrative of how sexuality, aesthetics, morality, and jurisprudence collided almost a century ago.”
“Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses casts its nets… widely, synthesizing enormous amounts of information and describing in detail the multiple circumstances surrounding the gestation, publication and suppression of Ulysses. Birmingham is a fluid writer, and the more intricate the detail, the more compelling the narrative he constructs: his account of the rise of American obscenity laws… is as gripping to read as his account of the barbaric eye surgeries Joyce endured or his account of the nearly slapstick manner in which Samuel Roth published a pirated edition of Ulysses in 1929.”
Publishers Weekly (starred):
“Exultant….Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law, and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred):
“[A] sharp, well-written debut….Birmingham makes palpable the courage and commitment of the rebels who championed Joyce, but he grants the censors their points of view as well in this absorbing chronicle of a tumultuous time. Superb cultural history, pulling together many strands of literary, judicial and societal developments into a smoothly woven narrative fabric.”
“What begins as simply the ‘biography of a book’ morphs into an absorbing, deeply researched, and accessible guide to the history of modern thought in the first two decades of the 20th century through the lens of Joyce’s innovative fiction.”
“Birmingham delivers for the first time a complete account of the legal war waged…to get Joyce’s masterpiece past British and American obscenity laws. Birmingham has chronicled an epoch-making triumph for literature.”
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“The Battle for Ulysses” is the story of a conversation about injustice, vigilantes and censorship. It's a conversation spanning several decades, a world war and a great depression. Indeed, it continues to this very day. Ultimately, Birmingham’s book is about Joyce’s relationships with people -- his lovers, his excesses and conflicts between his supporters, his detractors, his muse and between James Joyce and himself. It’s about “indecency”, but more importantly, it examines what offends people in the context of post-world-war-one modernism, radicalism and the construction and deconstruction of public morals. Birmingham shows the reader the world as it was for James Joyce, a world that believed it had a duty to protect "innocence" (especially female virtue) from promiscuity, rebellion, blasphemy and the absence of meaning.
As Birmingham tells it, “Ulysses” was a book written by an author confronting the fear of thinking and the dangers of thought itself. His society was in denial about homophobia, for example, long before anyone identified what it was. Sexual taboos, anarchy and the politics of search and seizure were just as conflicted for people living in Paris or New York in 1920 as they are today. The story of how “Ulysses” came to be written in the first place, and then printed, published, smuggled and eventually legalized is the story of James Joyce, the writer. But it’s also the story of a community of artists and writers, social activists and revolutionaries meeting in bars, sidewalk cafés and coffee houses inciting provocative new ideas. The descriptions of bookstores in the East Bank, for example, are so vivid I could almost smell the paper in stacks of books, I could almost hear conversations between Ezra Pound and Hemingway, between T.S. Eliot and Virginia Wolf.
What impressed me the most with “the Battle for Ulysses” is how relevant it is. Birmingham didn’t write a dry history book meant to gather dust. On the contrary, “the Battle for Ulysses” describes a struggle for the right to dissent by encouraging critically engaged readers to think the unthinkable, whatever that is. What was at stake for James Joyce when he wrote “Ulysses”, and what’s at stake for readers today, is the push-back against the idea that thinking is somehow unsafe. Censorship, confiscation and burning of “objectionable” material, was, in the world of James Joyce and in our world, all about trying to enforce political, religious and ideological conformity. This is what makes Birmingham’s arguments so convincing: assaults against “Ulysses”, James Joyce and others of his generation, up to, including and beyond the beatniks of San Francisco, show opposition and obstruction to ideas of inclusion, tolerance and transparency. These concepts, and others, were as “dangerous” to the neoconservative members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in New York in 1920 as they are to the neoliberal policy-makers of 2014.
But, Birmingham, also provides a rather in-depth historical perspective/accounting of:
1. feminism in the 1920s and 1930s
2. the women's suffrage movement
3. the publishing industry - including the beginnings/creation of The Modern Library, Random House, Simon and Schuster, and Great Books Foundation (which I found interesting since that was my father's first real job.)
4. censorship laws
5. the magazine industry
7. US copyright law
9. obscenity laws
10. First Amendment
11. Beginnings of the American Civil Liberties Union
We also get bits and pieces on Virgina Woolfe (who refused to publish Ulysses), Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, Nabokov, and TS Eliot (one of Joyce's major supporters, and the one who finally got Ulysses published in the UK in 1939.)
A couple of quotes:
" To legalize what was once patently unspeakable, however, is to replace silence with both debate and debatability. It is to invite deep- even systemic-uncertainty. For to change moral standards is to upset what we assumed was natural (nothing serves systems of power more than the conviction that things cannot change), and few modes of expression seem more natural- more instinctive and indisputable , less amenable to logic or academic study - than what we find offensive or obscene. If obscenity can change, anything can." - Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle over James Joyce's Ulysses.
Margaret Anderson, editor of the Little Review - is quoted as follows in the book:
"First, the artist has no responsibility to the public whatever." The public, in fact, was responsible to the artist. "Second, the position of the great artist is impregnable... You can no more limit his expression, patronizingly suggest that his genius present itself in channels personally pleasing to you, than you can eat the stars."
And ...from Ernst Morris, the co-founder of the ACLU:
" Censorship was a tactic used by entrenched powers to quell democracy's inherent turbulence, and groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Ernst thought, were their moral instruments. Censorship was what happens when power brokers who benefit from the status quo team up with moralists who believe society is perpetually on the brink of collaspe.
To fight for the freedom of books was to fight for the priniciple of self-governance that had inspired the American Revolution. For Ernst, there was no strict separation between political and sexual ideas - burning books sent a chill across the entire culture.
"Censorship," he wrote, "had a pervading influence on the subconscious recesses of individual minds." It altered the way the country approached science, public health, psychology and history. Only a blinkered Victorian mentality, Ernst thought, could think that the Roman Empire fell because of its moral decadence.
The worst part about the censorship regime was that it was maddeningly arbitrary. Books that circulated for years might be banned without warning. Customs officials might declare a book legal only to have the Post Office issue it's own ban. A judge or jury could acquit a book one day and condemn it the next, and the wording of the statues themselves stoked confusion."
Finally...my favorite quote...
"One of the paradoxes of the printed word is that whatever strength and durability it has is inseparable from its inherent weakness. Even a book like Ulysses, we consider essential to our cultural heritage book, might never have happened - might have ended in a New York police court or with the outbreak of a world war - if it were not for a handful of awestruck people. Joyce's novel, with its intricacies and schoolboy adventures, with each measured and careful page, gave them what it gives us: a way to sally forth into the greater world, to walk out into the garden, to see the heaventree of stars as if for the first time and affirm against the incalculable odds, our own diminutive existence. It is the fragility of our affirmations - no matter how indecorous they may be - that makes them so powerful."
This is a book that I'd recommend to anyone who has studied Joyce, loves literature, or is interested in censorship laws. But it also is a book about publishing, and the frustrations along the way. And ultimately how much our culture has changed.
Definitely one of the best books I've read. Highly recommend.