Before I read this book, all I knew about the history of censorship and obscenity I learned from the trials of Allen Ginsberg and his poem “Howl”, published by Lawrence Ferlingetti in San Francisco in 1956. That, and of course, Lenny Bruce, until he died in 1966 at the decline of his career. I was familiar with the title “Ulysses” and aware of James Joyce. I knew he had something to do with “sexually explicit” material, so I bought the unabridged copy, put it on my Kindle and started at the beginning. There’s something tragically ironic in how easy it is to acquire “Ulysses” in the Internet-age, and less than 100 years ago people went to jail for reading it out loud with a woman present! If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend reading “The Battle…..” along with “Ulysses” at the same time, if for no other reason than to see what all the fuss is about.
“The Battle for Ulysses” is the story of a conversation about injustice, vigilantes and censorship. It's a conversation spanning several decades, a world war and a great depression. Indeed, it continues to this very day. Ultimately, Birmingham’s book is about Joyce’s relationships with people -- his lovers, his excesses and conflicts between his supporters, his detractors, his muse and between James Joyce and himself. It’s about “indecency”, but more importantly, it examines what offends people in the context of post-world-war-one modernism, radicalism and the construction and deconstruction of public morals. Birmingham shows the reader the world as it was for James Joyce, a world that believed it had a duty to protect "innocence" (especially female virtue) from promiscuity, rebellion, blasphemy and the absence of meaning.
As Birmingham tells it, “Ulysses” was a book written by an author confronting the fear of thinking and the dangers of thought itself. His society was in denial about homophobia, for example, long before anyone identified what it was. Sexual taboos, anarchy and the politics of search and seizure were just as conflicted for people living in Paris or New York in 1920 as they are today. The story of how “Ulysses” came to be written in the first place, and then printed, published, smuggled and eventually legalized is the story of James Joyce, the writer. But it’s also the story of a community of artists and writers, social activists and revolutionaries meeting in bars, sidewalk cafés and coffee houses inciting provocative new ideas. The descriptions of bookstores in the East Bank, for example, are so vivid I could almost smell the paper in stacks of books, I could almost hear conversations between Ezra Pound and Hemingway, between T.S. Eliot and Virginia Wolf.
What impressed me the most with “the Battle for Ulysses” is how relevant it is. Birmingham didn’t write a dry history book meant to gather dust. On the contrary, “the Battle for Ulysses” describes a struggle for the right to dissent by encouraging critically engaged readers to think the unthinkable, whatever that is. What was at stake for James Joyce when he wrote “Ulysses”, and what’s at stake for readers today, is the push-back against the idea that thinking is somehow unsafe. Censorship, confiscation and burning of “objectionable” material, was, in the world of James Joyce and in our world, all about trying to enforce political, religious and ideological conformity. This is what makes Birmingham’s arguments so convincing: assaults against “Ulysses”, James Joyce and others of his generation, up to, including and beyond the beatniks of San Francisco, show opposition and obstruction to ideas of inclusion, tolerance and transparency. These concepts, and others, were as “dangerous” to the neoconservative members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in New York in 1920 as they are to the neoliberal policy-makers of 2014.