The Most Important Literary Censorship Case

Ulysses Cover

I began reading Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (2014) on Bloomsday (June 16). Bloomsday is a literary event celebrated around the world with parties, pub crawls and readings. The Irish novelist James Joyce set his 1922 novel Ulysses on a single day – June 16, 1904 – in part because that was the day he first saw the poor Galway runaway Nora Barnacle, the woman who would become his wife. This much celebrated though not often read novel presents the meanderings of two rather ordinary Dublin citizens, a married newspaper advertising salesman, Leopold Bloom, and a disaffected young intellectual. Stephen Dedalus. Throughout the day, their paths cross, somewhat unbeknownst to them, and at the end of an evening of drunken revelry, Bloom invites Stephen to his home where his unfaithful wife, Molly, waits for his return and ruminates about many things, especially about her sex life. It’s a novel in which nothing much happens yet it’s a novel in which the history of the human race is capture. This one day is everyday.

It is not Birmingham’s intention to explain the novel and its many technical innovations – the way that Joyce invokes the turn-of-the-century geography and culture of Ireland’s capital; the devices by which Joyce provides access to the inner life of his characters through stream of consciousness; Joyce’s deployment of many different styles so that it becomes a review of English prose forms; and Joyce’s use of the Ulysses myth to structure the novel and to illuminate its central characters. [In Joyce’s retelling of the epic, Bloom is Odysseus, Dedalus Odysseus’s son Telemachus, and Molly Penelope.] As Birmingham readily acknowledges, there are over 300 full length studies of the novel and more than 3,000 articles that have appeared in scholarly journals. A full-time Joyce industry has emerged, kept alive, in part by questions about Joyce’s intentions in his cluttered drafts and galley proofs. Although Birmingham has other goals than literary explication, readers, will still learn about the plot of the novel and its methods.

What Birmingham has chosen to write about, and what may be equally or more interesting to most readers, is a biography of the novel, about Joyce’s herculean efforts to complete the novel despite physical pain and impoverishment and about the fight among many enthusiasts to lift the ban against this allegedly pornographic and filthy novel. Birmingham skillfully interweaves chapters about Joyce’s infirmities (diminished eyesight probably as a result of a 1905 dalliance with a Dublin prostitute) and the strategizing of bookstore owners, publishers, and the literary avant-garde. Thus, the book is a cultural history that focuses on the moral temperature of the first third of the 20th century and the fights between moralistic Victorians and crusaders for a less Puritanical society. The efforts on behalf of the novel by literary figures, small magazine editors, liberal attorneys, and ordinary enthusiasts result in the 11 year censorship restriction in the English speaking world.  It’s a story about the various attempts to define the obscene-pornographic and to determine the function of artists and their work in the modern age. It’s a story of the turbulent 1920’s when another form of prohibition – against alcohol – signaled the last gasp of 19th century morality.

Because of the Ulysses case, we are a bit hard pressed to find examples of censorship today, though local school boards continue to debate the appropriateness of assigning Maya Angelou’s Why the Caged Bird Sings and parent-teacher organizations protest against the celebration of violence and unprotected sex in rap lyrics. New censorship battles are fought along different lines today: at some universities, professors are urged to insert danger-warnings into their syllabi, alerting their future students that some of the required reading or viewing may traumatize them, and thus, the student will be excused from participation during that section of the course. The battle for Ulysses has resulted in the unremarkable sight of grandmothers openly reading E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway. And in the fame of contemporary American writers like Philip Roth and Donna Tartt.

Why the alarm about Ulysses? Joyce chose to write candidly about the body, especially the ways in which his two protagonists, presented as everymen, physically absorb the world through their sense and the ways in which they perform and think about elementary body functions. [Just as each chapter in the novel parallels an episode in the Odyssey, each chapter subtly highlights a particular body part.] Copulation, elimination, mastication, masturbation – and other actions somewhat sanitized by their Latin names – are part of Joyce’s inquisitive domain, though, in truth, these passages are a relatively small fraction of the novel. Bloom and Dedalus are fully flesh and blood, but they are much more than their bodily functions and desires. Yet the morals police, like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) and the Home Office in Britain had no problem cherry-picking scandalous passages that proved that the book was a threat to civil society, especially to young people especially vulnerable to images of the impure. Even the prospect that a passage would titillate was sufficient to get the full text censored.

Birmingham’s book is a pantheon of wonderful characters, many arguably more interesting than the reclusive and melancholy Joyce. To name just a few of the prigs and pagans:

  • Sylvia Beach, an affluent American who opens up Shakespeare and Company bookstore in the Left Bank section of Paris, a place that would become a magnet-salon for the literati and their devotees. It was Beach who gathered the resources to become the first publisher of the novel.
  • Ernest Hemingway, a bit player in the whole affair, who makes use of a friend to sneak copies of the novel one at a time from Windsor, Canada into Detroit. Possession of the novel could often result in a hefty fine and substantial jail time.
  • Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. Two women in a Boston marriage who published The Little Review in which many of the chapters were first published, alerting the censors well before the publication of the full text, to the police work that they would need to do. Harriet Weaver Shaw, from a proper and affluent Victorian family, did similar work in The Egotist in the UK. These are stories of resourceful and headstrong women who begged, stole and borrowed to keep their fragile publications alive and helped usher in literary modernism.
  • John Sumner, the head of the NYSSV, who with the persistence of Javert in Les Miserables, hunted down pornographers and sponsored celebratory burnings of obscene material, or at least material that he considered obscene. The then-mighty United States Postal Service became an instrument of suppression. During his tenure, Sumner succeeded in jailing Mae West, who debuted in the play Sex, and in shutting down pulp fiction and skin magazine publishers.
  • Morris Ernst, an attorney who successful persuaded Judge Woolsey to lift the ban against the publication of the novel in the states. To his credit Woolsey spent much time reading this difficulty novel and arrived at the conclusion that the novel was not about sex at all, but rather about the sometimes creative and sometimes disruptive interplay between our conscious and subconscious selves. Ernst skillfully played two cards: That artistic geniuses were exempted from charges of pornography and the difficulty of the novel meant that no innocent and impressionable reader would be able to locate the salacious sections.
  • Ezra Pound, poet, critic, and literary gadfly, who managed Joyce’s career to a certain degree by connecting him with influential people and promoting Joyce’s brilliant genius.

Even the minor characters – like the husband of one of Beach’s typists who, scandalized by sections of the draft, threw it into the fire – are interesting.

The publication of Joyce’s novel in 1922 was an earth-shaking event in the literary world; the 1933 lifting of the restrictions on the publication and distribution of the novel was a mighty after-shock of that earthquake. It was the equivalent of the repeal of the Volstead Act, a decision on the minds of many more people of the time than the status of Joyce’s novel.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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