on The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

When I studied abroad at Oxford as an undergraduate, I took a course on Ulysses. I  ’d always wanted to read it, but I felt inadequate to its genius, for the act of reading Joyce’s novel brings with it heaps of intimidating baggage: the endless stream of critical appraisal; the stories concerning its publication; the well-known correspondences with Homer’s The Odyssey; the yearly celebration on June 16th, Bloomsday, which draws thousands all over the world; and the repeated declarations that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. As David Pierce put it, “If there was an easy way of getting a handle on this novel, then it would have been discovered by now.”

I wanted help. On the day we began our discussions my professor, an impossibly handsome Irish man, watched me awkwardly flip back and forth between the prose of the novel and the endnotes of my edition. (We used the Oxford World’s Classics 1922 text, since in my professor’s opinion it was closest to Joyce’s vision.) He interrupted me and told me never to reference the notes again. “If you don’t understand it,” he said, “then let yourself not understand it.” He said people had placed too much emphasis on “understanding” Ulysses, as if it were merely some puzzle to be solved. “Listen to the language,” he said. “Joyce wanted you to hear the music of it.” This was the best advice he could have given me. After that tutorial, I read on unencumbered by any fear of my inferiority in the face of the text. Ulysses was something you experienced just as much as something you understood

My professor’s other great advice was that I go to Dublin while it was so close. I traveled alone and followed Bloom’s trail, beginning, of course, with his home on Eccles Street. I was a bit underwhelmed. It was just a street. I’m not sure what I  ’d expected, but I guess I ’d hoped to be moved or illuminated at the sight. Instead, there was nothing. As I continued on, disappointed, it finally hit me: yes, Eccles is just a street, but that’s the whole point. Joyce had elevated the quotidian to such epic proportions I had forgotten that Leopold and Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and the rest were not mythical figures. They were ordinary people. The fact that Eccles Street was unremarkable was exactly why Joyce placed Bloom there.


As I read Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, those Dublin revelations from years ago kept returning to my mind because part of Birmingham’s aim is to show how scholars “have examined the novel’s dense network of allusions, its museum of styles and its insight into the human mind so thoroughly that the scholarship buries what made Ulysses so scandalous: nothing, in Ulysses, is unspeakable.” The unspeakable things have nothing to do with radical politics or controversial claims but rather with the everyday truths of human life: thoughts, fears, bowel movements, desires, the body. What makes Ulysses so extraordinary is how ordinary its subjects are. Birmingham has an astute firm grasp of its many nuances. After quoting a particularly inscrutable passage (Stephen Dedalus’ “Ineluctable modality of the visible” sequence), Birmingham writes:

It was not the type of prose that flew off the shelves. It was, however, a new rendering of the way people think. Thoughts don’t flow like the luxuriant sentences of Henry James. Consciousness is not a stream. It is a brief assembly of fragments on the margins of the deep, a rusty boot briefly washed ashore before the tide reclaims it.

To read Ulysses is to read transcripts of the characters’ inner lives. As my professor had insisted, one can’t fully understand Ulysses any more than one can fully understand another human being. Mysteries are inevitable.

Later, as Birmingham recounts the case The United States of America v. One Book Called “Ulysses”, he describes Joyce’s style as “simultaneity.” “Your honor,” said Morris Ernst, the lawyer who defended Ulysses in court, “while arguing to win this case . . . I’ve also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.” Judge Woolsey confessed that “while listening to you I’ve been thinking about the Hepplewhite chair behind you.” Ernst replied: “That, Judge, is the essence of Ulysses.”

And so it is . . . sort of. Part of the book’s endless appeal is its obstinate lack of essence. There’s simply too much going on in the novel to cull out one distinctly superior quality. How does one characterize the “Aeolus” episode—which features parodies of newspaper headlines like “WITH UNFEIGNED REGRET IT IS WE ANNOUNCE THE DISSOLUTION OF A MOST RESPECTED DUBLIN BURGESS”—against the “Sirens” episode, which begins like this: 

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
Imperthnthn thnthnthn.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the
Gold pinnacled hair.

“Sirens,” the eleventh episode, takes music as its theme (Joyce attributed each episode with a style and a theme), and, as you read on, you discover that all the words and phrases of these bewildering opening sentences appear in the section, contextualized and thus elucidated. This is not nonsense, but an overture; no one had ever experimented so brazenly in literature before. It isn’t just that these sections don’t gel into a conventional narrative (especially by 1920s standards); they jar. They seem deliberately confounding, purposely obscure. Given the sheer range displayed in Ulysses, any attempt at reducing it to a singular core is utterly futile. The work is too big for simplistic definitions. Unfortunately for Joyce, the law in the first half of the twentieth century didn’t agree. The court had a straightforward definition: obscene.


Significantly, Birmingham isn’t as much interested in the artistic merit of Ulysses as in its legal and cultural importance. His book is not, after all, an academic analysis (we have plenty of those already). Instead, it is a work of riveting storytelling. Birmingham combines the sure-footed style of a great journalist with the structural knack of a novelist. His prose is crisp, articulate, and moves along effortlessly. He spends entire chapters introducing major figures—the Woolfs, for instance, who turned down an offer to print Ulysses—before leaving them behind, only to bring them back once their role becomes integral to the story. Far from a dry history, The Most Dangerous Book is drama of a high order.

The saga of the publication and reception of Ulysses is nearly unbelievable in retrospect: how can a contemporary reader—who lives in the permissive world of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Fear of Flying, and even Fifty Shades of Grey—fathom the intense reaction to Joyce’s work? Birmingham does a wonderful job of setting up the many controversies surrounding Ulysses by first describing Joyce’s trouble publishing Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist. An early publisher refused to print the story “Grace” because it included the word bloody. The printer for The Egotist, the magazine that first serialized A Portrait, edited out the words fart and ballocks. By the time Birmingham gets to The Little Review and its serialization of Ulysses, the reader is well positioned for the maelstrom to follow. How would such a finicky publishing environment respond to the scene where Bloom masturbates while watching Gerty MacDowell, a young lame woman, lying on the beach? Or what about this section of Molly Bloom’s concluding monologue?

I can feel his mouth O Lord I must stretch myself I wished he was here or somebody to let myself go with and come again like that I feel all fire inside me or if I could dream it when he made me spend the 2nd time tickling me behind with his finger I was coming for about 5 minutes with my legs round him I had to hug him after O Lord I wanted to shout out all sorts of things fuck or shit or anything at all

Here is how people reacted: Ezra Pound, Birmingham notes, was “the first person to censor Ulysses,” doing so as he was preparing it for The Little Review. He hoped to avoid prosecution under the 1873 Comstock Act, which “made the distribution or advertisement of any ‘obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print or other publication of an indecent character’ through the U.S. mail punishable by up to ten years in prison and a ten-thousand-dollar fine.” Pound’s effort was to no avail. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice—believe it or not, a real organization and not an invention from a Thomas Pynchon novel—took Ulysses to the New York City Police Court in 1921. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of The Little Review, were sentenced to “serve ten days in prison or pay a fine of one hundred dollars.” When Sylvia Beach, owner of the famed Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, published Ulysses in full for the first time in 1922, copies were seized all over the world, forcing Beach to employ Ernest Hemingway’s friend Barnet Braverman to smuggle the book into America via Canada—a clandestine operation that involved Braverman renting “a small room in Windsor” so that he could “take the books across the river to Detroit one by one.” Authorities burned thousands of copies. Bootleg editions abounded (and, in fact, the first legal American edition was inadvertently based on the corrupted text of one of the bootlegs). The world was simultaneously welcoming and dismissing Ulysses, a contradictory response straight out of the novel itself. 

Because of Birmingham’s considerable skill and his novelistic artistry, the climax of his book is as powerful as any I’ve come across in many months. I nearly cheered in my chair as I read of Judge Woolsey’s final decision on 25 November 1933: “In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake.” As chronicled by Birmingham, Woolsey’s conclusion—“Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States”—filled me with pride that I was a writer, that I was an American, that I was in any way involved in the making, packaging, or distribution of art. The prudishness of America a century ago is hard to believe but vital to remember. Joyce’s novel is crucial enough—artistically, legally, culturally—for it to become an important chapter in the history of free speech. With Birmingham’s stirring, engaging, and captivating book, this story finally has its definitive volume.


New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2014. 417 pp. $29.95.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and the author of  Skateboard (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2022) and An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate, 2018). His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, Vulture, Rolling Stone, the Atlantic, and numerous others.