Saturday, June 14, 2014

Internet Abuzz over New Book on Tumultous Birth of Joyce's Ulysses

A new book detailing the creation and tumultuous publishing history of Ulysses has James Joyce in the media spotlight moreso than I can ever remember. Harvard professor Kevin Birmingham has been earning heaps of positive praise for his new work The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses published by Penguin Press. I received my copy yesterday and find myself zooming through it already. It's very smoothly written and presents an engrossing narrative.

Despite eventually being considered the greatest novel of the 20th Century and one of the most important books in the English language, Ulysses had a hell of a time being born. Before Joyce had even completed it, literary magazines which had been publishing excerpts were burned by post offices and their editors prosecuted on obscenity charges. Publishing houses wouldn't come near it, so the first edition of Ulysses was actually published by a small bookstore in Paris. It was a crime to own Ulysses in the English-speaking world for over a decade, leading some fervent devotees to chop the book into pieces and tape it to their bodies to be smuggled across borders. And the book only became legal after lengthy courtroom battles.

Adding to all that drama, Joyce suffered terribly from eye diseases during the book's seven-year creation, underwent many eye surgeries without anesthetics, and bounced around multiple cities with his family as World War I began. 

It certainly makes a fascinating story and, from what the reviews are saying, Kevin Birmingham has nailed it in his new book.

I'll have more to say about it once I've completed The Most Dangerous Book but for now you may want to check out some of the attention it's been receiving.

Publishers Weekly writes:
"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."
The Washington Post actually calls it "a page-turner"! (Same with the Telegraph: "Kevin Birmingham has a deep love of the novel, and knows everything about Joyce. His learned book is a gripping page-turner.)

Reviews in the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, CounterPunch, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education praise the new book's fluid writing, thoroughly researched details, riveting courtroom drama, engaging narrative and enlightening perspective on the intensity of the era (first decades of the 20th century) in which suffragettes were blowing up buildings in London as they fought for voting rights and people were being put in prison for reading books that talked about sex.

Slate has a large feature on it, referring to Ulysses as "literary anarchy," as does The Economist which describes Birmingham's new book as "thrilling."

Library Journal has an interview with the author, here's his excellent summation of the book:

"I’d like to remind people that books are dangerous and powerful, and Ulysses is the perfect example of that. Female sexuality simply wasn’t something an author could write about—it seemed to be a force that could break marriages and families apart. Joyce confronted those fears directly. Beyond that, Ulysses seemed to overturn all traditions, standards, and codes—it violated all of the rules of literature. In a world that was already skittish about falling empires, the lionization of Ulysses among certain men and women of letters seemed to confirm that something was seriously wrong with Western civilization, that we had reached the end of something. And they were right.

This story revisits a time of upheaval and war as well as an explosion of popular culture, literacy rates, urbanization, and immigration—and these factors made books that could “deprave and corrupt” the public even more frightening. We forget about the power of books because we have newer technologies to worry about (the Internet and video games), but the written word is still the primary vehicle for unsettling ideas."

Some more info about the author:
Kevin Birmingham received his PhD in English from Harvard, where he is a lecturer in History & Literature and an instructor in the university’s writing program. His research focuses on twentieth-century fiction and culture, literary obscenity and the avant-garde. He was a bartender in a Dublin pub featured in Ulysses for one day before he was unceremoniously fired. This is his first book.
Part of the attention Birmingham's book has received concerns his assertions that Joyce had syphilis, leading to his blindness and other persistent illnesses. This had been speculated over the years (specifically in Kathleen Ferris' James Joyce and the Burden of Disease) but Birmingham's research has ostensibly proved this rumor to be true.

The Guardian published the piece on Joyce and syphilis followed shortly thereafter by another piece on Joyce in which award-winning Irish author Eimear McBride declares him "My hero" and argues:
Difficulty is subjective: the demands a writer makes on a reader can be perceived as a compliment, and Joyce certainly compliments his readers in what he asks of them.

Another recent piece on Joyce written by an Irishman is entitled "James Joyce: You Can't Ignore the Bastard" and is worth a read.

And, lastly, the archives of Vanity Fair have seen some of their old articles on Joyce resurface of late. Here is Djuna Barnes interviewing the author in Paris in 1922, the year Ulysses was published.


  1. All this Ulysses/Joyce-stuff that has moved to a societal focal point for the moment: it's exciting for us Joyce-philes, eh? Your enthusiasm of the reception of Birmingham is infectious and I enjoyed reading this article and its links, PQ. Thanks!

    Ever since I started reading RAW and Leary on the 8-Circuit Brain Model, when I read about Ulysses' publishing problems, then Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller, _Howl_, Naked Lunch, and the Frederick Wertham inquisition over comic books, I tend to see it all as 3rd circ types battling 4th circ (the "Moral" socio-sexual circuit) types.

    And we win, but the "moral" crusaders, subconsciously afraid that others, in the privacy of their rooms with books, will find out more about desire, the body, how sex really works, kinkiness, the ubiquity of non-monogamy, that there is a vast expression of lust and emotional pain and depravity of humans toward other humans that actually has always existed, and can be articulated from non-Judeo Xtian minds in effective poetic ways...the moral crusaders will always lose, but they'll never give up.

    To quote Burroughs about these types: "You always were a headache and you always were a bore."

    The moral crusaders, an emotional plague, tend to be consistent in the sense that their fervent belief that the Best Book - a Bronze Age text written by a losing desert tribe with an understandably punitive and childish "deity" - is all-powerful stuff. And therefore, other books that boldly question the powers of Their Book must be fought vehemently. Books have magickal powers of their own; they can hijack minds. In a perverse way, I love them for constantly pointing this out to the rest of us.

  2. Well said, Michael, thanks for reading and commenting.

    As I continue to go through Birmingham's excellent book, I'm constantly agape at the suppression, censoring, and self-righteous bullshit from the moral crusaders. During the 20s, a BBC radio program planned to discuss the modern literary scene but the show's host was strictly forbidden from mentioning the title of Ulysses and couldn't talk much about Joyce. A Cambridge professor was investigated and harassed by authorities for requesting a copy of Ulysses to be used in his literature course. And of course the seizures and burnings by customs officials.

    All for a book that would soon be universally regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.

    I heard an interview with Birmingham where he mentioned his original idea was to write a book about banned and censored works of modern literature but he found the story of Ulysses so compelling and exemplary of the censorship insanity that he decided he must write the full history of this one book.