In our 21st-century world, it seems disarmingly quaint that an entire printing of Dubliners was destroyed in 1912 for being obscene because James Joyce dared to use the colloquialism “bloody.” In the ensuing years, high-minded censors in both Britain and America continued to attack Joyce’s work, striving to keep his magnum opus, Ulysses, out of the hands of readers. Conventional minds were shocked by the book’s candid depictions of sexual and scatological matters and the “filthy” language Joyce used to portray them. The censors had the upper hand at first, but their campaign ultimately backfired, as the legal challenge to publish and distribute Ulysses transformed the culture and the laws that had tried to control it.

In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s ­Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham provides an exhaustive and compelling account of the battle to suppress Joyce’s big blue book. A specialist in the history of literary obscenity, Birmingham combines the well-documented story of Joyce’s personal struggle to write what many consider the greatest novel of the 20th century with the no less dramatic, but lesser-known, stories of the many brave advocates who risked money, reputation and even criminal prosecution to share it with the world. Key among these were the eccentric champion of modernism, Ezra Pound, and the New York finance lawyer and art collector, John Quinn, who exerted his clout in the cause of modern art. Birmingham emphasizes, though, that it was three singularly determined, liberal-minded women who played central roles in the Ulysses publication story, a remarkable fact given the era and the scandalous nature of the material.

Harriet Weaver was a decorous British cotton heiress, and publisher of The Egoist, who became an early believer in Joyce’s talent and would provide incalculable financial support to the itinerant writer. Her American counterpart, Margaret Anderson, edited the avant-garde journal The Little Review and bravely published each chapter of Ulysses as Joyce completed it. Her efforts would land her in court on obscenity charges, and the case, which she lost, would provide the linchpin on which censors later hung the banning of the novel in book form. Another American, Sylvia Beach, founder of the now-legendary Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, would famously dare to publish Ulysses in 1922. Hers would be the only openly available edition for more than a decade, routinely smuggled into the U.S., until a landmark 1933 court case allowed Bennett Cerf and Random House to publish the first authorized American edition.

The story Birmingham recreates is populated with many of the major literary forces of the age—Yeats, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Woolf—reminding us how, at the outset, Joyce’s work was both revered and reviled. “These days,” he writes, “Ulysses may seem more eccentric than epoch changing, and it can be difficult to see how Joyce’s novel (how any novel, perhaps) could have been revolutionary. This is because all revolutions look tame from the other side. They change our perspectives so thoroughly that their innovations become platitudes. We forget what the old world was like, forget even that things could have been another way.”

Joyce was an iconoclast in the true sense of the word, smashing the revered, staid, idols of Victorian letters. That his work managed to do much more than even his wildest ambitions might have hoped for—shaking the very foundations of established mores and redefining the very notion of obscenity—surely pleased the savage spirit of the great Irish writer. Sadly, as Birmingham reminds us, Joyce’s belated victory did less for him in his lifetime than it has since done for us.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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