The first edition of Ulysses was bound with a now-famous blue cover. Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book, about the obscenity trials and complicated publishing history surrounding James Joyce’s masterpiece, comes in a decidedly purpler package. Modernism, in Mr. Birmingham’s estimate, is “a loose collection of small cultural insurgencies driven by a broad, sometimes inchoate discontent with Western civilization.” Shakespeare and Company, the Paris bookseller that helped publish the first edition of Ulysses in spite of the best efforts of the book’s censors, is “a literary node in a cultural metropolis.” The word “fuck” “does more than transmit an idea. It is a sign whose very shape becomes a spectacle, a nude figure to be clothed in asterisks.” The revelation, for which Mr. Birmingham, a lecturer at Harvard, has already received no small amount of press, that Joyce’s chronic eye problems were the result of the bacteria treponem pallidum, which causes a little congenital disease better known as syphilis, comes after hundreds of pages of vague hints and arrives with the ceremony usually reserved for paternal disclosures in action movies. “Joyce must have wondered: why me?” Mr. Birmingham writes, and I can nearly hear the swelling of a John Williams-esque score reaching a crescendo in the background.
Stylistic hiccups aside, Mr. Birmingham’s book is a well-researched and carefully drawn portrait of the greatest of all publishing stories, documenting the mostly secret circulation of Joyce’s book, which was essentially illegal throughout the Western world. Publishers risked jail time for printing it and for that, Mr. Birmingham’s cast of characters is worthy of Joyce himself. There’s Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice and “the single most important arbiter of what was and was not obscene.” He wasn’t a cop but he carried a badge and raided bookstores and apartment buildings to squash out obscene literature, and his beard did not quite hide the deep scar on his left cheek, a reward from a pornographer whom he was attempting to arrest. His successor, John Sumner, caused, in the words of Joyce, “hell in New York” over Ulysses. He acted as a kind of de facto literary critic as he branded Joyce a lecherous sleaze. Other details flit by like excellent tabloid fodder, for instance Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company, sleeping in the backroom of her shop. Or Margaret Anderson, who serialized a sizable fraction of Ulysses in her journal, The Little Review, and was a glamorous enough presence that while she was on trial for publishing obscene material, a judge mistook her for one of the women that he imagined was so offended by Joyce’s novel. Barnet Braverman, a friend of a 22-year-old aspiring writer named Ernest Hemingway, deserves a book of his own: he was recruited to smuggle copies of Ulysses from Windsor, Ontario, into Detroit in the pant legs of a bulky suit, like a bootlegger with bottles of whiskey.
Most interesting of all these characters, though, is John Quinn, The Little Review’s legal counsel and a prominent New York art collector. In May 1922, he smuggled 14 copies of Ulysses into America by shipping them alongside “three Picassos and a Cézanne—the peculiar paintings were a diversion from the literary contraband” and went successfully unnoticed by customs. Quinn’s devotion to Joyce was complete enough that he worked tirelessly for the author even as he was dying of cancer, and yet he was filled with remarkably conflicted thoughts about the very material he was defending. After reading Joyce’s “Circe” section—which was almost destroyed in a fire when the husband of Joyce’s typist (the ninth typist to work on that particular chapter) caught a glimpse of the manuscript—Quinn wrote to the author: “I rather admire that husband…He was playing the game right, shielding her, protecting her, guarding her, and learning what she was doing, and disapproving where disapproval was due.” He called the editors of The Little Review “stupid charlatans and silly fakers” but he paid their fines and kept them out of jail. It’s never clear why a man would spend the final years of his life supporting a book that he didn’t seem to think much of on an aesthetic level, but this paradox only adds to Quinn’s mystique.
I cringed when Mr. Birmingham compared the final chapter of Ulysses, “Penelope,” Molly Bloom’s associative soliloquy, to “the warm earth revolving in the interstellar freeze.” Or when the most salacious letters between Joyce and the mother of his children, Nora Barnacle (“fuck fuck fuck my naughty little hot fuckbird’s cunt for ever,” etc.), lead to the conclusion, “James Joyce treated readers as if they were lovers.” Mr. Birmingham’s strengths are not as a literary critic. But what he has given us is a full reminder of how much the world owes to Ulysses even outside of the literary realms of style and experimentation. We have Joyce’s writing to thank for freeing up the English language, for letting no thought or impulse go unpublished. But as Mr. Birmingham claims, “So much has been written about what’s exceptional within the pages of Joyce’s epic that we have lost sight of what happened to Ulysses itself.” The publication of the book alone “effectively turned the standard bearer of an avant-garde movement into a representative of art as a whole, a symbol of creativity fighting against the authority that would constrain it.”