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The Battle for James Joyce’s "Ulysses"


Kevin Birmingham’s amazing history of the birthing of James Joyce’s Ulysses (described as the biography of a novel) focuses on the great writer’s “toiling through war, illness, and penury” as the major obstacles contributing to his tortured writing career.  “In June 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which banned any activity hindering the U.S. armed forces or helping its enemies during the war.” Enforcement of that act was largely left to the Post Office, as “the institution that could inspect, seize, and burn” leftist materials, deemed a threat to the country.  About a half of Ulysses was serialized in The Little Review during 1918-1920.  The journal also ran articles about abortion, contraception, and sexuality.  Joyce’s novel initially became controversial because of where it was being published.

It didn’t help that Anthony Comstock was a special agent of the Post Office and the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  Various “Comstock Acts” determined what could be delivered by the Post Office at a time when there were no other delivery methods.  Comstock opined, “Lust defiles the body, debauches the imagination, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, sears the conscience, hardens the heart, and damns the soul.  It unnerves the arm, and steals away the elastic step.  It robs the soul of manly virtues and imprints upon the mind of the youth visions that throughout life curse the man or woman.” Only hair in one’s palm appears to be missing from Comstock’s diatribe.

Censorship of Ulysses began not because Post Office censors were looking for pornography but for “foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists.” Moreover, the Post Office “enabled little magazines on shoestring budgets to reach nationwide audiences” because of its incredibly low rates for delivering printed material.  The Little Review, for example, was charged only $3.33 to mail two thousand copies. The intent was freedom of the press and the broad dissemination of ideas and issues, permitting some publications to survive on a pittance. But guilt by association and a mindset of revolutionaries hiding everywhere meant that Ulysses didn’t have much of a chance from its early pages, certainly less “offensive” than from what would follow. We’re talking about an era when fart, buttocks, and piss were words not appropriate for polite discourse, let alone for print. Worse, the editors of The Little Review (Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap) were moral reformers and joycelovers, outspoken in their opinions. Their magazine, thus, linked Joyce to “Bolsheviks and bomb throwers and birth controllers” or so Ulysses’ critics assumed.

Joyce’s illnesses were mostly related to his eyes.  When he was still a beginning writer, he suffered from glaucoma and was called “a blind seer.” In 1917, “Joyce’s iris, the blue part of his eye, was swollen from iritis, and the swelling pushed his iris forward, perhaps less than a millimeter, which blocked the drainage of ocular fluid.  When the pressure spiked inside his eye, Joyce found himself in the throes of his first attack of glaucoma.  The episode was, more than financial troubles and world war, the gravest threat to the book Joyce had barely begun to write.” The source was actually untreated syphilis, resulting in a lifetime of surgeries.  This is how Birmingham describes his initial operation:

“Joyce was conscious during his surgery. The nurse medicated him with atropine and cocaine before the blepharostats pried his eyelids open. The surgeon held Joyce’s eyeball with fixation forceps so that his eye, riveted in the surgical light, watched the blade advancing like a bayonet. The cornea resisted for a moment before the blade pierced the surface and slid into the eye’s anterior chamber. Exudate flowed over into the incision. The nurse took the fixation forceps, turned Joyce’s eye downward and handed Dr. Sidler the iris forceps. The prongs entered the chamber and pulled the top edge of Joyce’s iris out through the incision like a tissue from a box. The nurse handed the doctor the iris scissors, and after warning Joyce to hold still, he cut away a triangular piece of his iris and pushed the severed edge back inside with a spatula.” #*&!!

After three years of writing, Joyce had still not completed a single episode. He badly needed patrons to support him and his family. Royalties from both of his earlier books, Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, were virtually non-existent—again because of issues relating to censorship. He was broke and, worse, never could manage money. The Little Review lost its trial for publishing obscenity (Ulysses). The editors, Anderson and Head, were fined $100 and had to spend ten days in jail, but that was the end of publishing sections of Joyce’s novel in the journal. It was obvious that the book (still unfinished) needed to be published by itself, but in both England and the United States, typists would not set the type and printers said they wouldn’t print it.

Enter Sylvia Beach, the American owner of “Shakespeare and Company,” a leftist bookstore in Paris. Numerous publishers had been offered Ulysses, but all had declined.  Beach—untested as a publisher—said yes. It was 1921; the novel was still unfinished.  Beach planned an elaborate publishing schedule with numerous editions, all at fairly hefty prices because of the book’s length and risk. When it was finally complete, Ulysses was set by typesetters who didn’t speak English. Joyce kept revising the book in galleys.  When it finally appeared in February of 1922, the initial reviews were glowing but shortly a backlash occurred, with some of the negative remarks written by significant critics. This is the way Birmingham describes the importance of the novel’s publication:

Ulysses offered liberation from what we might call the tyranny of style: from the manners, conventions and forms that govern texts almost without our realizing it. The novel as an art form had long been about breaking the tyranny of style, but Ulysses removed narrative elements no one had considered removable. A single narrator guiding the reader through the story was gone. The contextual armature that helps a reader make sense of events was gone. Clear distinctions between thoughts and the exterior world were gone. Quotation marks were gone. Sentences were gone. In the place of style we are left with borrowed voices and provisional modes, all of which are fleeting, all of which, as Eliot told Woolf, reduce style to ‘futility.’”

In short, the birth of the modern.

The books were printed, but getting copies smuggled into the English-speaking world was a challenge all by itself. Hundreds of copies sent to the United States were destroyed by the Post Office. Ernest Hemingway assisted Beach in getting copies smuggled into the United States via Canada. There were numerous ruses to avoid the postal services in the United States and England, yet by November of 1922, the novel had been banned in both countries. As more copies were destroyed by the censors, Beach printed additional ones. So did Samuel Roth, a notorious pornographer, who pirated Joyce’s novel. Since Ulysses had not been official published in the United States, Roth had little to worry about, but Joyce would lose significant royalties because everyone who had heard about the novel wanted to have a copy of it.  (American tourists in France went to elaborate pains to smuggle copies back into the United States, tearing off the binding, chopping them into sections, etc).

While all these battles over Ulysses were waging, Joyce’s eyesight was steadily deteriorating. He was trying to write his next novel, Finnegan’s Wake, but with little success. His relationship with Nora, his wife, was also deteriorating—in part—because  of her indifference to Ulysses. She read only a few pages of the book. Joyce made impossible demands on Sylvia Beach. He always needed more money. Finally, after years, Bennett Cerf, the editor of Random House, made a decision to publish the novel legitimately in the United States, knowing that the publication would lead to a trial over the novel’s so-called obscenity.  But Cerf took the risk and waited patiently until he got the liberal judge he needed (John Woolsey), and after a great deal of brouhaha—in a celebrated trial in 1933—Ulysses was deemed not obscene. And then another curve: Random House discovered that its edition of the famous novel (perhaps by then the most famous novel in the world) was not the unexpurgated edition but the one that had been pirated by Samuel Roth.  “The first legal edition of Ulysses in the United States was the corrupted text of a literary pirate.” But James Joyce (what was left of him) was finally free from debilitating financial worries; the royalties would be steady.

In addition to the detailed account of how Ulysses was written, of the endless problems with censorship and skirting the censors, Kevin Birmingham’s brilliant account of Joyce’s masterpiece reveals much about the writer himself, wicked details ignored by Joyce’s earlier biographers. If readers thought that Ulysses was full of dirty words, it’s a good thing that they didn’t have access to Joyce’s letters to his wife. It’s pretty obvious that Joyce was not a very good husband or father, but he was obsessed with Nora’s body, every cavern that could be penetrated. In his letters to her, he went into ecstasies about her flatulence and everything that could be done to the orifice from which that gas escaped. Fortunately, those letters were not being delivered by the United States Post Office.

Kevin Birmingham: The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

Penguin, 417 pp., $29.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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