The Chronicle Review

When Literature Was Dangerous

Julia Schmalz for The Chronicle

June 13, 2014

From a prison cell in Nigeria in 1995, the novelist and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote to PEN USA: "I’ve often envied those writers in the Western world who can peacefully practice their craft and earn a living thereby." Shortly after sending off his letter, Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the military régime of General Sani Abacha. For many writers throughout the world, marshaling words on a page still imperils their lives. The Freedom to Write Committee of PEN International monitors more than 500 cases of persecuted writers each year. They include: Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving 11 years in a Chinese prison; Nguyen Xuan Nghia, a Vietnamese poet, novelist, and essayist who is serving six years for dissident writing; and Mohammed al-Ajami, who is serving 15 years in Qatar for composing two poems critical of the emir. It is not so for American authors, though a peculiar paradox is at play. Philip Roth, returning from a trip to Communist-controlled Prague, expressed it in his observation: "There, nothing goes and everything matters; here everything goes and nothing matters." Suppression is the compliment a dictatorship pays to the moral authority of its authors.

As the authority of the printed word has receded, its power to offend has faded.

Roth was able to write freely—the sexually explicit Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969, is a case in point—because of a series of court decisions culminating in 1966. In that year, a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling that John Cleland’s 18th-centry novel Fanny Hill possessed "redeeming social value," effectually put an end to the literary censorship that had been routine in the United States. In the momentous 1933 case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Judge John M. Woolsey, ruling that James Joyce’s unconventional novel was not "obscene," set a precedent that would eventually lead to the lifting of virtually all restrictions on books that are not libelous or a threat to national security. Today obscenity and profanity seem quaint categories, at least in connection with fiction and poetry, and the United States Postal Service no longer seizes and burns books.

In 1923, a year after the publication of both Ulysses and his own landmark poem "The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot proclaimed Joyce’s novel "the most important expression which the modern age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape." Not everyone agreed. Edith Wharton called Ulysses "a turgid welter of pornography," and Virginia Woolf dismissed Joyce as "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples" and Ulysses as "an illiterate, underbred book." D.H. Lawrence, who had his own problems with censorship, pronounced the triumphant final chapter of Ulysses "the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written."

More problematic for Joyce: The novel was loathed by government agents and moral vigilantes, who seized and destroyed hundreds of copies.

Today, while reading about Leopold Bloom’s progress through Dublin on June 16, 1904, may still lead to epiphany, it no longer produces the frisson of handling forbidden fruit. After its own success in smashing all the icons in the Temple of Literature, when literature was still revered as a sacred institution, Ulysses, though not exactly airport fiction, manages to sell more than 100,000 copies a year. A recent search of the Modern Language Association International Bibliography yielded 3,916 entries—dissertations, scholarly articles, and books.

So, adding to the vast library of Ulysses commentary, Kevin Birmingham needs neither to explicate nor exculpate Joyce’s once-embattled opus. Instead, he has produced what he calls "the biography of a book," an account of the genesis, suppression, and ascendancy of the quintessential modernist text. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses tells the fascinating story of how Ulysses came to be written, prosecuted, acquitted, published, and read. It is an essential, thoroughly researched addition to Joyceana and a consistently engaging narrative of how sexuality, aesthetics, morality, and jurisprudence collided almost a century ago. For Birmingham, a lecturer at Harvard, Joyce’s novel is as crucial to legal as it is to literary history. Its trajectory from reviled contraband to essential landmark of modernism illustrates profound changes in Western culture within the span of less than a century.

In 1918, chapters of Ulysses began appearing in The Little Review, a magazine of the international avant-garde based in Greenwich Village. Though its motto was "Making No Compromise with the Public Taste," its dedicated editors, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were forced to compromise when threatened with prison over the "obscene" contents of their journal. Harriet Shaw Weaver, editor of The Egoist in London, faced similar legal problems. No American or British book publisher dared defy their country’s censors by marketing an edition of Ulysses.

However, despite her lack of any publishing experience, Sylvia Beach, the plucky proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, the legendary English-language bookstore in Paris, decided to bring the book out herself. Employing a printer in Lyon who did not speak English, she eventually placed between two hard covers the most innovative novel in modern English. However, getting it distributed and read was a challenge, since, goaded by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, customs and postal employees seized and destroyed copies that made their way to the United States. British authorities were equally zealous in enforcing an embargo against Joyce’s allegedly smutty book.

It was not until Judge Woolsey’s decision on December 7, 1933, more than a decade after the first Paris edition, that Random House, an ambitious upstart that had acquired the rights from Beach, was able to publish Ulysses legally. It was not until 1936 that John Lane was able to publish and sell the novel in the United Kingdom.

The American Library Association, which designates the final week of September as Banned Books Week, has no problem finding titles to fill its annual lists of books under siege. However, these are generally books that have been removed from particular libraries or schools, not the kind of total proscription imposed on Ulysses, as well as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Naked Lunch, Lolita, and other works that have since become staples of literary study. Over the decades since the Woolsey decision, authors, publishers, and judges have struggled to parse the differences between "indecent" and "obscene" and determine the meaning of such terms of art as "prurient interest" and "redeeming social value." However, the upshot is that, though sexual explicitness and offensive language are the most frequently cited reasons for which books are now challenged, neither is now a legal barrier to publication or sale.

In 1857, by contrast, Charles Baudelaire was put on trial and forced to pay a fine of 300 francs for the "insult to public decency" that his volume of poetry Les Fleurs du mal was judged to be. However, it is hard to imagine any democratic country now imposing an interdiction on a mere volume of poems. "If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone," noted Thomas Hardy, acknowledging society’s indifference to his art. It is true that publication in 1988 of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses provoked a violent backlash and a ban. It is also true that this year, under pressure from Hindu activists who took offense at its portrayal of their religion, Penguin India withdrew Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009) from sale. Neither prurience nor obscenity was at issue in the cases of Rushdie and Doniger. By contrast, E.L. James has had no trouble publishing and selling (and selling and selling) her raunchy erotic romance, Fifty Shades of Grey. In no small part because of Joyce and his patrons, publishers, lawyers, and devotees, the nations of North America and Western Europe no longer employ literary censors.

Yet anyone who, like Philip Roth, observes how peripheral literature has become to the common culture might regard the victory for freedom of expression as pyrrhic. If everything goes, does anything matter?

Birmingham’s book, like such other recent works as Rick Wartzman’s Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (2008) and Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (2013), offers perverse nostalgia for a recent past when books mattered so much that writing and publishing them risked arrest: Publishing demanded not only capital but courage as well. Like Edward de Grazia’s magisterial survey of literary censorship, Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius (1992), it is written from the vantage point of a time in which no one is sent to prison for profanity or lewdness.

"True liberty," wrote Norman Mailer in 1968, "consisted of his right to say shit in The New Yorker." A couple of decades later, it became possible to take for granted the liberty of planting that vulgarism and other notorious four-letter words in The New Yorker as well as in less fastidious venues. While one can certainly admire the heroism of writers who have risked—and continue to risk—their lives to pursue their art, it is fatuous for the citizen of a free society to long to reimpose those risks merely to relish the heroism it elicits.

Birmingham’s quaint tale of prigs and pagans reads almost as a farce whose antiquated premise is that depiction of human sexual experience is criminal. It became a comedy of the absurd when Barnet Braverman, a friend of Ernest Hemingway’s, smuggled Ulysses into the United States by crossing the border from Windsor to Detroit carrying one copy day after day after day. Because of an 1895 Supreme Court ruling that "It is unnecessary to spread the obscene matter in all its filthiness upon the record," prosecutors could triumph in court by using mere paraphrase of what offended them. By 1933, government officials were becoming leery of moral vigilantes clamoring for prosecutions, and the civil-liberties champion Morris Ernst might not have had his landmark case (and the lucrative fee he negotiated with Random House, 5 percent of sales of Ulysses), if he had not succeeded in persuading reluctant customs authorities to seize a copy. Arguing before a judge who was a connoisseur of furniture, clocks, pewter, and fine literature, he won his case with an ingenious strategy—though offensive, he contended, Joyce’s novel was a masterpiece. Even Sam Coleman, the prosecutor, agreed with that assessment, though he insisted that its brilliance made the book even more dangerous. The only one who went to prison for publishing Ulysses was the hapless and larcenous Samuel Roth, a wannabe media mogul who was arrested for selling a pirated and botched edition.

Many of the prim typists hired by Beach in France quit in exasperation over Joyce’s impossibly cluttered manuscripts or disgust over their bawdy contents. When the outraged husband of one typist discovered the smut that his wife was working on, he burned part of the "Circe" chapter. French typesetters were befuddled and irritated by the copious alterations that Joyce made to the galleys of his text. In contrast to the consternation of strangers, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s lifelong companion, his muse, and the inspiration for Molly Bloom, took no interest in his great book. Years after its legal publication, Joyce confided to his friend Frank Budgen: "My wife has been complaining because there is no light literature in our flat. She has never read Ulysses which, after all, is light, humorous stuff."

For Joyce himself, the battle for Ulysses was neither light nor humorous. It was an excruciating ordeal. Moving from Dublin to Trieste to Zurich to Paris, he was utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers to pay his family’s bills. Those bills increased after his daughter, Lucia, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Joyce’s own debilities both impeded and impelled the writing of his book. He persevered despite the agonies of syphilis-induced iritis that left him on the verge of blindness and madness. "Joyce wrote an epic of the human body partly because it was so challenging for him to get beyond his own," notes Birmingham. In the end, for all the commentary that has grown up around Joyce’s once-forbidden novel, the final word on it—in it—is best left to Molly Bloom’s exultant, concluding soliloquy—"yes I said yes I will Yes." The naysayers have been defeated; the battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses has been won.

The publication of Ulysses was a cataclysmic event that shifted the tectonic plates of Western culture. Its particular attention to the quotidian, its representation of interiority, and its verbal playfulness defy duplication, at the same time that they altered the possibilities of fiction for such disparate writers as Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Alfred Döblin, William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry, Gabriel García Márquez, Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O’Brien, Georges Perec, Thomas Pynchon, and Yaakov Shabtai.

However, in less exalted realms of artistic achievement, the impact of Ulysses is most apparent in the linguistic freedom and sexual candor of the entries in any week’s best-seller list. The most dramatic difference between publishing in 1922 and 2014 is that today writers in democracies do not get hauled into court or sent to prison for what they write. That is not to say that proscriptions on expression no longer exist. Stringent social taboos continue to tyrannize, but they pertain to race, religion, and politics more than obscenity and vulgarity. And they have migrated from the printed word to film, TV, and social media. As the authority of the printed word has receded, its power to offend has faded. A sequence of words printed in a book that might cause a titter among readers could produce a cultural calamity if tweeted.

The victory of Ulysses helped create a culture in which literature lacks urgency. Until January 1, 2012, when Joyce’s works entered the public domain, the fiercest recent battles over Ulysses were those conducted by copyright lawyers for Stephen James Joyce, the author’s grandson. While earlier efforts to ban the novel affirmed the power of the written word, later conflicts over control by the Joyce estate reduced his great novel to a commercial commodity.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton) and The Translingual Imagination (University of Nebraska).