Why Joyce’s Syphilis Burns People Up

What weapon was used

To slay mighty Ulysses?

The weapon that was used

Was a Harvard thesis.

– Patrick Kavanagh, “Who Killed James Joyce?” (1951)

Kevin Birmingham’s new The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses is itself embattled, having caused a kerfuffle within the Joycean scholarly community. At issue is the author’s argument, taking up five of his 300-plus pages, that throughout the composition of Ulysses (and before, and after) Joyce was suffering from syphilis. The book, a history of Ulysses‘s composition and legal troubles, upsets a tradition of scholarly skirting around the question of Joyce’s syphilis, and some academics are not pleased. [Full disclosure: I am professionally acquainted with Birmingham, as I am with numerous Joyce scholars responding to the book.]

Luca Crispi, of University College Dublin, is particularly displeased. He lambasted Birmingham when interviewed for an article in the Sunday Times: “There’s no argument there; [Birmingham] just simply says things, weaves them together.  … It’s more like historical fiction than fact.” He continues, at some length, and apparently, in some heat, impugning Birmingham’s methods and motivations; according to the article, Crispi considers the syphilis argument as the sort of claim  ”used to sell books.” (As if anyone believes the best way to sell books is to write about Ulysses.) Crispi does not impugn Birmingham’s evidence—an immense amount of research detailed in his endnotes.

Other commentators echo Crispi’s dissent, if not his vituperation. When The Guardian‘s article about the book was posted to a social-media page for the annual meeting of Joyce scholars, it produced a thread of derisive objections. “The World is full of half-baked theorists,” says one. “I will now try to get at least one ‘sexy’ disease into each of my publications” says another. Birmingham’s book was not commercially available when those comments appeared, although review copies had been distributed.

The scholarly response is striking for its dismissive tone toward responsibly documented research and argument—and for the topic in dispute: author biography. A radical new reading of Joyce’s work is not at stake. Furthermore, while Joyce studies has always negotiated biographical information, Joyce’s is not a saintly reputation that will be besmirched by syphilis; prurience is even part of his authorial brand. So why does the issue of syphilis get under people’s skin?

Birmingham’s claim, as both he and his detractors point out, is not new. Stan Gebler Davies’s 1975 biography of Joyce bruited the idea, and Kathleen Ferris made it central to her James Joyce and the Burden of Disease (1995). What is new, however, is the archival work, medical testimony, and graphic detail (hint: eyes, pus, and leeches, but no anesthetic) that attend Birmingham’s argument—the obvious doggedness with which he hunted down facts and consulted pharmaceutical experts, leading to his matching Joyce’s cocktail of ailments and treatments with the diagnosis of syphilis.

Something else is new as well: Birmingham himself. He is an early-career scholar—having never presented at a Joyce conference or written in an academic journal, and with only one Joyce critic (Robert Spoo) appearing in his acknowledgments—putting out a trade book, attracting attention for revisiting an idea long tabled by the Joyce community. And what attention! The volume is mentioned on the cover of The Economist and has been reviewed by the The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other nonacademic publications.

It is easy to view the dismissals of Birmingham by Joyce scholars as a response to those circumstances—to imagine that the syphilis issue merely offers a way to disparage work that has bypassed academic vetting and received a degree of mainstream interest rare for scholarship. In the Sunday Times, Crispi concludes his dissent (offering up instead the focal theory of infection that has been disproven) by saying, “That’s what most Joyceans think.” A clubby insularity undergirds this denouement.

The Joyce scholarly community is generally thought to be an affable bunch, welcoming new approaches and young blood. Birmingham did not integrate. Possibly as a result, the responses to his syphilis thesis are, so to speak, burning him, just as the Joyce community may feel burned by the attention the argument is drawing. To round out the target Birmingham is sporting, there is his affiliation. In the Sunday Times he is a “Harvard scholar.” In The Guardian he is a Harvard “lecturer.” He had them at “Harvard.”

As the strongest attacks are appearing in a British newspaper, and much of the disparagement is coming from scholars in Ireland and Britain, it may be that Birmingham’s affiliation with the most prestigious American university isn’t helping him. The epigraph above, Kavanagh’s verse, offers a historical instance of how the name “Harvard” can mingle notions of academic elitism and American exceptionalism, specifically in Joyce studies. (The Most Dangerous Book does not stem from Birmingham’s Harvard thesis.) Joyce scholarship in Ireland and Europe has long been anxious—it is an open secret—about being colonized by U.S. academics, another nerve that Birmingham might have touched.

This is not simply a story of the academiat behaving badly; the controversy reveals disciplinary anxieties at work. Some of the reactions show concern with how Joyce scholarship, or perhaps scholarship in general, is publicly represented. One comment on the social-media thread, for example, merges condemnation of Birmingham with recognition that few scholars manage to establish the public platform that he has: “One argument for regular public engagement is that certain academics don’t make [it] into the papers for telling people things that aren’t especially interesting.” This wistful note invokes recent debates over what it means to be engaged, debates that address the fissures between professional realities and popular perceptions of academic work.

Indeed, those fissures helped compel this essay. As I read the Sunday Times article, my initial response was to note that the paper is run by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and may be editorially disposed to delight in literature scholars’ tearing at one another’s throats, especially over so salacious a topic, and especially when that topic is practically incidental (again: five pages) to the text where it appears. The platform of the strongest reactions, the Sunday Times piece crystallizes the disconnect between scholarly concerns and their appearance in the news media. Birmingham himself, it should be noted, is elsewhere complicit in this, having published an article about syphilis in Harper’s.

The syphilis issue disturbs Joyce scholars because it is a nonissue whose lurid quality easily grabs public attention. To use disease as a figure: The Joyce community as a body has been infected not by the idea that Joyce had syphilis, but by the concern that a sideshow over syphilis overshadows serious scholarly labor. The controversy over Birmingham’s book reveals the process as contagious.

Jonathan Goldman is an associate professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology. He is the author of Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity (University of Texas Press) and co-editor of Modernist Star Maps: Celebrity, Modernity, Culture (Ashgate).

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