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The most dangerous book: the battle for…

The most dangerous book: the battle for James Joyce's Ulysses (2014)

by Kevin Birmingham

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I am vaguely familiar with Joyce and Ulysses; I must say I had not appreciated just how strong the censorship regimes were in both the UK and the USA at the turn of the century, and the extent to which literary innovation was tied into political radicalism - The Little Review, which initially serialised Ulysses in America, was closely linked to Emma Goldman and generally sympathetic to anarchism. I also hadn't realised the crucial role of Ulysses in the origins of Random House. It's a fascinating story, well told.

Joyce himself comes across as a demanding, self-centred individual, constantly needing financial subvention from (mostly female) donors, his body riddled by venereal disease, driving his family mad. But there's something about his prose that catches your soul, and while there are parts of Ulysses that miss the mark, there are parts that very much hit it. Birmingham makes the very strong case that censorship was wrong and unjustifiable in principle, but the fact that it was being used against a work as hefty (in many ways) as Ulysses made the case for continued censorship weaker (though not in Ireland, where Ulysses was never formally tested but there was a tough regime for censorship of books from 1929 to 1967,, parts lasting until 1998). ( )
  nwhyte | Dec 31, 2017 |
Really interesting book on the writing and publishing of Ulysses, and also functions as a biography of James Joyce. Mostly it's the story of censorship and the growth of the First Amendment into what we understand it to be today, and how changes in writing and literature precipitated the legal changes. I read it slowly over several months and really didn't want it to end. ( )
  bostonbibliophile | Dec 25, 2016 |
Very interesting, mostly a study on the evolution of American publishing rights and the First Amendment vs. pornographic vs. literature standards and the way the Ulysses trials changed so much of that. But I truly had no idea. None! That the Roaring Twenties really were so roaring, or that Joyce had so many protectors. This was eye opening in many ways. It was a fast read, I couldn't put it down. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
One of the best books that I've read in the past two years. On the surface it appears to be about the big 1930s censorship case against Ulysses, which had been banned for 20 years due to obscenity. The case basically changes US and later UK censorship laws and how Western culture viewed obscenity.

But, Birmingham, also provides a rather in-depth historical perspective/accounting of:

1. feminism in the 1920s and 1930s
2. the women's suffrage movement
3. the publishing industry - including the beginnings/creation of The Modern Library, Random House, Simon and Schuster, and Great Books Foundation (which I found interesting since that was my father's first real job.)
4. censorship laws
5. the magazine industry
6. piracy
7. US copyright law
8. modernism
9. obscenity laws
10. First Amendment
11. Beginnings of the American Civil Liberties Union

We also get bits and pieces on Virgina Woolfe (who refused to publish Ulysses), Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, Nabokov, and TS Eliot (one of Joyce's major supporters, and the one who finally got Ulysses published in the UK in 1939.)

A couple of quotes:

" To legalize what was once patently unspeakable, however, is to replace silence with both debate and debatability. It is to invite deep- even systemic-uncertainty. For to change moral standards is to upset what we assumed was natural (nothing serves systems of power more than the conviction that things cannot change), and few modes of expression seem more natural- more instinctive and indisputable , less amenable to logic or academic study - than what we find offensive or obscene. If obscenity can change, anything can." - Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle over James Joyce's Ulysses.


Margaret Anderson, editor of the Little Review - is quoted as follows in the book:

"First, the artist has no responsibility to the public whatever." The public, in fact, was responsible to the artist. "Second, the position of the great artist is impregnable... You can no more limit his expression, patronizingly suggest that his genius present itself in channels personally pleasing to you, than you can eat the stars."

And ...from Ernst Morris, the co-founder of the ACLU:

Censorship was a tactic used by entrenched powers to quell democracy's inherent turbulence, and groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Ernst thought, were their moral instruments. Censorship was what happens when power brokers who benefit from the status quo team up with moralists who believe society is perpetually on the brink of collaspe.

To fight for the freedom of books was to fight for the priniciple of self-governance that had inspired the American Revolution. For Ernst, there was no strict separation between political and sexual ideas - burning books sent a chill across the entire culture.

"Censorship," he wrote, "had a pervading influence on the subconscious recesses of individual minds." It altered the way the country approached science, public health, psychology and history. Only a blinkered Victorian mentality, Ernst thought, could think that the Roman Empire fell because of its moral decadence.

The worst part about the censorship regime was that it was maddeningly arbitrary. Books that circulated for years might be banned without warning. Customs officials might declare a book legal only to have the Post Office issue it's own ban. A judge or jury could acquit a book one day and condemn it the next, and the wording of the statues themselves stoked confusion.

Finally...my favorite quote...

One of the paradoxes of the printed word is that whatever strength and durability it has is inseparable from its inherent weakness. Even a book like Ulysses, we consider essential to our cultural heritage book, might never have happened - might have ended in a New York police court or with the outbreak of a world war - if it were not for a handful of awestruck people. Joyce's novel, with its intricacies and schoolboy adventures, with each measured and careful page, gave them what it gives us: a way to sally forth into the greater world, to walk out into the garden, to see the heaventree of stars as if for the first time and affirm against the incalculable odds, our own diminutive existence. It is the fragility of our affirmations - no matter how indecorous they may be - that makes them so powerful.

This is a book that I'd recommend to anyone who has studied Joyce, loves literature, or is interested in censorship laws. But it also is a book about publishing, and the frustrations along the way. And ultimately how much our culture has changed.

Definitely one of the best books I've read. Highly recommend.

( )
  cmlloyd67 | Jun 7, 2015 |
An extremely intriguing book, I have to say the characters really stood out for me, including bastards Anthony Comstock and John Sumner, and awesome people who weren't familiar to me before, John Quinn, Bennett Cerf, and Morris Ernst. This book proves how literature can change history. It's amazing to think people didn't think the First Amendment didn't apply to art before this book. ( )
  Salmondaze | Dec 21, 2014 |
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An account of the dramatic writing of and fight to publish James Joyce's "Ulysses" reveals how the now classic book was the subject of a landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933 that overturned key censorship laws.
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An account of the dramatic writing of and fight to publish James Joyce's "Ulysses" reveals how the now classic book was the subject of a landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933 that overturned key censorship laws.

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