On June 16, 1904, the young James Joyce first spent time with Nora Barnacle. Each year on that date, called "Bloomsday," that encounter is celebrated everywhere by the writer's devotees — though the celebration is of an imagined, not actual, event. They follow the path of Joyce's creation Leopold Bloom through the Dublin described in "Ulysses." There the all-too-human Barnacle, who became Joyce's wife, becomes the model for Bloom's faithless wife, Molly, in the novel and then, through the alchemy of art, is transformed into Penelope, the exemplary wife of Greek legend.
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"Two hundred cities in sixty countries have celebrated Joyce's novel. There is no other literary event like it. One day each year, fiction creeps into reality as people around the world reenact events that never happened."
So writes Kevin Birmingham, in his capacious study, "The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses." Further, "In only a few decades, 'Ulysses' transformed from an insurgency to an institution. The academic Joyce industry boomed in the 1960s and has only increased with time. There are roughly three hundred books and more than three thousand scholarly articles devoted, partly or entirely, to 'Ulysses,' and about fifty of those books have been written in the past ten years."
Why, then, do we need an additional entry in a so-crowded field? "There are at least eight Joyce biographies of varying seriousness," Birmingham writes. "The first was published in 1924, when Joyce was only forty-two years old, and the most recent in 2012."
The reader anxious to delve into the details of Joyce's life with Nora, or the details of their daughter Lucia's madness, must look elsewhere; so, too, must a close critical reader of "Ulysses" itself. Though he necessarily touches on other fiction by Joyce — "Dubliners," "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," "Finnegans Wake" (inexplicably absent from the selected bibliography) — this is, as its author claims, a "biography of a book." In this it resembles the recent study of Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady" by Michael Gorra: a close focus on a central text within an artist's career.
What we have is a description of the fiction's growth from a short story through the years of composition ("732 pages in notebooks, on loose-leaf sheets and on scraps of paper in more than a dozen apartments in Trieste, Zurich and Paris."), and, importantly, a history of the reception of "Ulysses," both critical and legal, its journey to and through the courts. Before as well as after its first full publication in 1922, the book was banned, reviled and burned; now it's a "modern classic" and sits atop or near the top of any compilation of seminal 20th century works. To read of that long "battle" is to be startled anew.
Birmingham, whose first book this is, teaches in Harvard's history and literature program, and his case study is informed by that program's methodology. The examination of a text depends, he makes clear, on historical context, and the more one understands the latter, the clearer the former will be. So this is not so much the portrait of a novel — or even of its artist — as a study of the book's "surround." We are treated inter alia to a disquisition on the First Amendment, the history of anarchy, the U.S. Postal Service and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Of that organization's head, Anthony Comstock, Birmingham writes: "Comstock enjoyed measuring the dimensions of his righteousness. He counted 2,948,168 obscene pictures burned. 28,428 pounds of stereotype printing plates destroyed. 318,336 'obscene rubber articles' confiscated. Sixteen dead bodies. He measured the books he destroyed by the ton: fifty."
We learn the various backgrounds of the various women — Margaret Anderson, Harriet Shaw Weaver and Sylvia Beach among them — who sponsored Joyce over the years. We learn of his letters to Nora, and of her indifference to his art: "I guess the man's a genius, but what a dirty mind he has, hasn't he?"
Birmingham pays instructive attention to the life and letters of John Quinn, a lawyer and art collector who bankrolled Joyce early on. We read about the motivation of his publishers, publishing pirates, and the private and public opinions of such fellow modernists as T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf.
Joyce's history of operations on and medications for his eyes is laid out in painstaking detail: "He took dionine to dissipate his nebulae as well as salicylic acid and boric acid to disinfect his eyes. He took cocaine to numb the pain from the disinfectants and the glaucoma. He took atropine and scopolamine to dilate his pupils and break up synechiae. He took philocarpine to counteract the atropine and scopolamine, both of which induced delirium and hallucinations over the years."
And, importantly, Birmingham reveals: "The bacterium that invaded Joyce's eyes was called Treponema pallidum. James Joyce was going blind because he had syphilis."
In retrospect it's hard to see how this one novel could engender such a fuss. A phrase such as "(t)he snotgreen sea, (t)he scrotumtightening sea" no longer seems outrageous today; it did to its readership then. Joyce's punning use of "syphilization," as well as the passage on Gerty MacDowell (who leans back to show a length of leg while Bloom, watching her, masturbates) and, most important, Molly's closing soliloquy, with its unabashed usage of four-letter words, were all construed "disgusting." "Even D.H. Lawrence, who would later write his own unprintably obscene novel, 'Lady Chatterly's Lover,' said that the final chapter was 'the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written.'"
In his landmark decision of Dec. 6, 1933 — enabling the book to be printed and published in America — Judge John M. Woolsey disagreed: "I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt's sake." His description of the novelist's procedure is acute: "Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man's observations of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious."
Birmingham's own prose can grow excessive, as in the following: "It is a work of ardor and arduousness, something fragile and yet indomitable." Or "'Ulysses' split the ego that 'A Portrait' built, and that split is the fission through which the world bursts forth."
But by and large he writes with calm authority, and "The Most Dangerous Book" earns its title. The reader is reminded — 110 years after Joyce went out walking with his Nora — that "(w)e are born into patterns and stories thousands of years old, and indecency seems less dangerous when people seem less pristine. After 'Ulysses,' books seemed less likely to 'deprave and corrupt' us. If anything, they convinced us that the most dangerous fiction was our innocence."
Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan. His most recent book is "The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts."
"The Most Dangerous Book"
By Kevin Birmingham, Penguin, 417 pages, $29.95