It’s Still a Scandal!

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
James Joyce, circa 1922


One small scene from the annals of heroic modernism is the moment when, in the winter of 1921, the French novelist and critic Valery Larbaud gave the world’s first-ever talk on James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, at Shakespeare & Company, an Anglophone bookstore and lending library in Paris, run by a young American woman called Sylvia Beach. The book had still not been published—and Joyce was not well known. No critic had examined his work in depth, and not many of even the most literary people in England or America had heard of him. But in the last two or three years, Larbaud explained, Joyce had acquired an “extraordinary notoriety”—he had become the literary equal of Freud or Einstein. His name was an alluring rumor. Those who had read his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and especially those who had managed to read his new novel Ulysses, as serialized in the New York magazine The Little Review, all agreed.

And yet, Larbaud had to admit:

If you ask a member of the (American) Society for the Suppression of Vice: “Who is James Joyce?” you will receive the following reply: “He is an Irishman who has written a pornographic work called Ulysses which we have successfully prosecuted when it appeared in the Little Review in New York.”

For what had happened to Flaubert and Baudelaire, said Larbaud, had happened to Joyce. His art had been deemed obscene. Larbaud’s proposal, therefore, was to “try to describe the work of James Joyce as precisely as possible.” And then he began his lecture, using notes prepared by Joyce himself.

“All men should ‘Unite to give praise to Ulysses’; those who will not, may content themselves with a place in the lower intellectual orders,” wrote Ezra Pound a few months later, after the novel was finally published—by Shakespeare & Company, in its first venture as a publishing house. But you can only truly praise something you understand, and no one was quite certain what Ulysses was. Joyce’s novel created a vast transatlantic tremor of anxiety. Pound called it a “super-novel,” and even Joyce had problems of definition. In a letter to another of his supervised interpreters, Carlo Linati, he called it an “epic,” an “encyclopedia,” and most charmingly a “maledettissimo romanzaccione” (fucking novelosaurus). Only the gargantuan proportions were sure.

Should it have been so difficult? This novel has a story, after all. The date is June 16, 1904. The setting is Dublin. And the hero is Leopold Bloom—a devoted husband to his wife Molly, with whom he has one daughter. Jewish by race, Christian by baptism, and atheist by inclination, Bloom is really a believer in reason and science: he is the everyman of the democratic twentieth century. He works in the newspaper world as an advertising salesman. Calmly he goes about his business on this sunny day in June—cooking breakfast, attending a funeral, having lunch, negotiating with a client, sitting on the beach—wandering in Dublin, just as Ulysses once wandered in the Mediterranean during his long journey home.

The difference is that this Ulysses is avoiding his home: for he knows that Molly has an appointment that afternoon with the dapper Blazes Boylan—ostensibly to discuss a singing tour, but probably to consummate their flirtation. And so he pauses in pubs and bars, encountering a cast of kibitzers and schlemiels that includes, in particular, Stephen Dedalus, student of philosophy, with dreams of literary glory, whom the avant-garde reader would remember from A Portrait of the Artist, just as that reader would recognize many characters from Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories.

It’s true that a story that takes place over one day, without the usual sequence of grand events, was not an obvious genre. But this was the new avant-garde invention. It was not so arcane. As early as 1914, Ezra Pound had praised the stories in Dubliners precisely for this refusal of plot: “Life for the most part does not happen in neat little diagrams and nothing is more tiresome than the continual pretence that it does.” But then, the absence of plot was not the only problem. There was also the craziness of the technique.

Joyce’s novel employed the largest range of styles—a series of rapid innovations—ever seen in a single novel. Its first impression on the startled reader was a kind of intellectual blur. Most notorious was Joyce’s lavish use of the technique that became known, following Larbaud’s lecture, as interior monologue. This kind of thing:

A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last. He stood by the nextdoor girl at the counter. Would she buy it too, calling the items from a slip in her hand. Chapped: washing soda. And a pound and a half of Denny’s sausages. His eyes rested on her vigorous hips. Woods his name is. Wonder what he does. Wife is oldish. New blood. No followers allowed.

All the usual demarcations—between dialogue and thought and description—were now jumbled. (Joyce appropriated the technique from a minor nineteenth-century novel, Les Lauriers sont coupés, by Édouard Dujardin.) However, the technique could be gradually understood by the patient reader. True, one episode, set in a newspaper office, was interrupted with headlines, and a later episode, in a saloon bar, where songs were being solemnly recited, came with its own overture, but the committed reader could cope. Late in this day’s afternoon, however, a flamboyant range of styles took over: sports journalism, sentimental fiction, and even a sequential historical pastiche of English prose style. “I understand that you may begin to regard the various styles of the episodes with dismay,” Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, his most devoted patron and editor of The Egoist, which had serialized Portrait,

and prefer the initial style much as the wanderer did who longed for the rock of Ithaca. But in the compass of one day to compress all these wanderings and clothe them in the form of this day is for me only possible by such variation which, I beg you to believe, is not capricious.

And this manic variation culminated in a final chapter where Bloom’s wife Molly, lying in bed, thinks to herself, with almost no punctuation, in a free flow of domestic, dirty associations: “I know every turn in him Ill tighten my bottom well and let out a few smutty words smellrump or lick my shit….” This was the extra problem with Ulysses. Joyce’s stylistic one-man band included a linguistic obscenity that had not been used before so casually or comprehensively in literature. This not only upset the critics; it upset the lawyers, too.

And of course it’s easy to laugh at the critics, just as it’s easy to laugh at the lawyers. Look at them handle this masterpiece! At the end of 1922, Sir Archibald Bodkin, the director for public prosecutions, wrote a legal opinion explaining why Ulysses was to be banned in Great Britain. He had only read the last chapter, and was “entirely unable to appreciate how those pages are relevant to the rest of the book, or, indeed, what the book itself is about.” And yet, he concluded, there was “a great deal more than mere vulgarity or coarseness, there is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity.”

Yes, it’s easy to laugh at the lawyers. But what if the lawyers were right? For the question that still needs to be answered, I think, is whether the arguments over the novel’s obscenity and obscurity were just temporary historical effects or whether they point to the essence of Joyce’s originality. Or at least, that is the question raised by Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book. Birmingham is a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, and he has written a detailed account of the gestation, publication, and legal battles of Ulysses—a compendium of raw materials that can also point toward why Ulysses, nearly one hundred years later, is still the romanzaccione of the future.


A novel written in English around 1918 had a transatlantic legal problem. In the UK, there was the Obscene Publications Act, which defined as obscene any publication whose tendency was “to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.” Such a wide definition created a potentially giant category, in pursuit of which were ranged the police, customs officers, and the postal service, aided by the London Society for the Suppression of Vice, and its successor, the Vigilance Association. In the US, there were three laws: the Comstock Act, named after the vice crusader Anthony Comstock, which banned the circulation of any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, print or other publication of an indecent character”—and was pursued with vigor by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), first by Comstock, then by his successor, John Sumner; the Tariff Act, which banned the importation of obscene material; and the Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, which criminalized “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” In other words, as Birmingham writes:

The Post Office was in a position to ban the circulation of several of the novel’s chapters for being both obscene and anarchistic. In fact, the government’s reaction to Ulysses reveals how much nineteenth- century ideas about obscenity shaped twentieth-century ideas about radicalism.

This is Birmingham’s central insight. The anxiety about language was both sexual and political: it reflected a general fear of obscene, revolutionary subversives. Even if the most famous target of such fear was a radical movement of one: a hypereducated Irish novelist, living in Trieste, then Zurich, then Paris—who was pursued in the modernist epic Birmingham describes, with its vice crusaders, heroic editors, book-leggers, and dopey customs officers.

James Joyce Collection, SUNY Buffalo
Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at Shakespeare & Company, Paris, circa 1920

Before Ulysses, both Joyce’s previous books had caused crises of publication, jeopardized by reneging printers and publishers frightened of prosecution. It was Ezra Pound, who discovered Joyce thanks to a tip from W.B. Yeats in 1913, who acted as his fixer. (“Demon pantechnicon driver, busy with removal of old world into new quarters”—this was how Wyndham Lewis described Pound: a removal company for modernism.) Pound put Joyce in touch with Harriet Shaw Weaver and her magazine The Egoist; and when every printer in London refused to continue with Joyce’s work it was Pound who turned to The Little Review for Joyce’s new venture—Ulysses.

The Egoist, The Little Review…: the little magazines are another chapter in the epic chronicles of modernism. The Little Review was edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap out of their Greenwich Village apartment. (Ulysses was supported by a series of women: Shaw Weaver, Anderson and Heap, and finally Sylvia Beach.) In May 1917, Pound became the magazine’s foreign editor. Soon, Joyce began sending Pound Ulysses for serialization.

The demon driver understood the legal problems. At first, he was defiant: “I suppose we’ll be damn well suppressed if we print the text as it stands. BUT it is damn wellworth it.” On receiving the fourth episode, however, where Leopold Bloom calmly defecates, Pound made significant deletions—acting, like many other contemporary editors, as a pre-censor, before the text had been published.

Even Pound’s carefulness, however, had limits. The first ban of The Little Review from the US mail came in January 1919, for a fleeting moment of nostalgic sexual reverie: “Wildly I lay on her, kissed her; eyes, her lips, her stretched neck, beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright.” The May 1919 issue was banned for smaller problems of student conversation—like one proposed title:

Everyman His Own Wife
A Honeymoon in the Hand
(a national immorality in three orgasms)
Ballocky Mulligan

In January 1920, the problem was now political—a character’s barroom description of Queen Victoria as “the flatulent old bitch that’s dead.”

And then, that autumn, the fourth and most substantial legal action against Ulysses began. The avant-garde reader discovered Bloom resting on the beach, toward sunset. He watches a girl, Gerty MacDowell, sitting in the distance. There are fireworks in the sky. Gerty leans back to watch, exposing her underwear. And Bloom, watching her closely, masturbates.

In his epic of world description, Joyce had gone too far.

The New York atmosphere in 1920 was high on surveillance and terror—the police’s “Red Raids” and retaliatory anarchist bombings—when John Sumner, the head of the NYSSV, bought the September issue of The Little Review at the Washington Square Book Shop. Two weeks later, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the bookstore’s owner on charges of selling obscene works. Those charges were soon transferred to Anderson and Heap, the magazine’s editors. The trial eventually took place in February 1921. Representing The Little Review was John Quinn—a powerful lawyer who was also a modernist patron. His central defense was that since Ulysses was “cubism in literature” its obscenity could be excused by its obscurity: since who could be corrupted by something he or she didn’t understand? The judges were unconvinced. Heap and Anderson were fined $100, the issue was banned—and Ulysses became definitively unpublishable.

A possible solution, used by other banned books, both the purely literary and the purely pornographic, was a private edition, sold not on the open market but to a list of subscribers. This was the plan agreed on by Sylvia Beach. She had never published a book before, but she had met Joyce when he moved to Paris, and Shakespeare & Company was the local center of Anglophone modernism. Also, the trial had made Ulysses famous—and Beach wanted her own fame, too. Her publicity campaign proudly exploited the glamour of the banned:

ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication in “The Little Review will be published by “SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY” complete as written.

Valery Larbaud’s lecture at the bookshop in December 1921 was a further stage of prepublicity. Finally, on February 2, 1922, Joyce’s fortieth birthday, Ulysses was published.

The sequel to this story, told with detailed sprightliness by Birmingham, is a long decade of bans, smuggling, struggles against piracy (and macabre intensifications of Joyce’s eye problems, which have their own separate, gruesome interest). Sir Archibald Bodkin banned the book in Britain. Samuel Roth, a notorious rogue publisher in New York, put out pirated editions. And so it became inevitable that a final trial would take place—this time provoked not by the novel’s attackers but by its defenders, desperate to end its ban and publish it legally. The case was masterminded by Bennett Cerf at Random House—he had signed a contract with Joyce, taking over from Sylvia Beach—and civil liberties attorney Morris Ernst.

In May 1932, an incriminating copy of Ulysses was planted on a boat coming into New York. Unfortunately, the customs officials were so overworked that they waved it through, for safe delivery to Random House—so Ernst had to take the parcel back and demand its immediate seizure under the Tariff Act. The book was passed to Sam Coleman, the chief assistant DA in the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. It was a masterpiece, Coleman concluded, but also definitively obscene. However, wary of the publicity, he wanted his superior, George Medalie, to make the final decision. Medalie decided to prosecute: he had no choice.

The case was heard on November 25, 1933, with Judge Woolsey presiding. Ernst’s defense was that literature, by definition, could never be obscene. And Joyce’s novel was pure literature—its single loyalty was to depicting the vast infinity of human consciousness: its giant associations and lapses of attention. It was a courageous argument, and a persuasive one. Joyce’s subject, wrote Woolsey in his summing up, was “the screen of consciousness,” onto which were projected not just impressions of the present moment, but also a whole frieze of memories and associations. It was some of the most accurate literary criticism Ulysses had so far received. Random House published its edition on January 25, 1934—almost twelve years after the first two copies had been delivered from the printer to Sylvia Beach, waiting at the Gare de Lyon in Paris.


But what kind of object is it, really, this super-novel? An international bricolage—with its postage stamps and packing tape still visible. Just think of its giant range! There are obscene moments in this novel, absolutely, but then there are also soft domestic occurrences, like a cup of tea at breakfast (“The sluggish cream wound curdling spirals through her tea”), and shimmering intellectual conversations. “The supreme question about a work of art,” a character comments, “is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas.”

There is piety at a funeral or in a church, and also gossip, and drunk political argument. Most of all there is the largest range of the mind’s activities that had so far been seen in a novel: reveries, meditations, miniature passing regrets and cadenzas of wishful thinking, like Bloom’s endearing efforts to imagine the ideal advertisement. All of which are described with the infinite synthesizer of Joyce’s talent, equally happy not just with obscenity but also with puns in Latin and French, and his panoply of pastiche styles.

To place too much emphasis on Joyce’s legal battles with the censors, therefore, to range this hyperindividualist among his contemporary beatniks and free speech activists, seems too earnest, too retrospectively neat—as if all of Joyce’s sprezzatura was motivated by an exhibitionistic exasperation at outmoded legalities. It reduces the million elements of a multifarious novel into a single constricting pattern. The reader, after all, who tries to plot a reading of Ulysses according to the sketch map of its officially obscene elements—a random swear word, a sexual reverie—will soon give up in mute despair.

And yet: this novel is a scandal. It is still a scandal, nearly a century after its first publication. For something is missing in Ulysses—which could be called romanticism, or the ideal, or the metaphysical; and its absence is the deep reason why Joyce’s early readers were so alarmed, and why it can still disturb. Without it all the usual conventions are undermined. “What makes most people’s lives unhappy is some disappointed romanticism,” Joyce once said to his friend Arthur Power, “some unrealizable or misconceived ideal. In fact you may say that idealism is the ruin of man, and if we lived down to fact, as primitive man had to do, we would be better off…. In Ulysses I tried to keep close to fact.”

Ulysses: the least metaphysical novel ever written…

In keeping close to fact, Joyce happened on a whole new way of writing novels. And the first, most intoxicating invention was the discovery of how comprehensive it was really possible to be. Even sexual fantasies, to choose an extreme example, could suddenly find their form. There’s an episode that takes place in “nighttown,” the red-light district of Dublin, which Joyce wrote as a dream play, where the real and unreal melt into each other. At one point, Bloom is momentarily transformed into a woman, while Bella Cohen, the brothel mistress, is momentarily transformed into Bello, a man. What follows is a domination fantasy, where Bello instructs Bloom in his new duties as a maid emptying the brothel’s chamberpots (“lap it up like champagne. Drink me piping hot”) until, bored, Bello tries to sell Bloom off:

What offers? (He points.) For that lot trained by owner to fetch and carry, basket in mouth. (He bares his arm and plunges it elbowdeep in Bloom’s vulva.) There’s fine depth for you! What, boys? That give you a hardon? (He shoves his arm in a bidder’s face.) Here wet the deck and wipe it round!

If transgender fisting occurs earlier in the history of the novel, I would be surprised.

Yes, Joyce had happened on a new comprehensiveness, an absolute, equable precision. If this was read as provocation, such provocation was only a side effect of a much grander project of universal description. (“I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people,” he had already wearily noted, as early as 1906, when he was trying, and failing, to get Dubliners published.) In Ulysses, perhaps the most stunning achievement of this total writing was the character of Bloom himself. “You seem to have read a lot,” Joyce once said to his friend, the painter Frank Budgen. “Do you know of any complete all-round character presented by any writer?” Budgen’s answer was Homer’s Ulysses, and it met with Joyce’s approval. But Bloom is a much larger creation even than Ulysses, and he remains the most thoroughly imagined character in literature—an achievement perhaps only possible because of the multiple styles of Joyce’s novel, which allowed him not just to describe Bloom’s fantasies, including some that are obscene, but also his height and the precise layout of his ideal home.

And yet it’s also true that, while the obscene in the novel is only one small aspect of this new largesse, it was perhaps through obscenity that he discovered the possibility of this revised gigantic scale—in private, in a series of letters he exchanged with his wife Nora in 1909, before he wrote Ulysses. These letters, often dismissed as a curiosity, are fluorescent with obscenity—with Joyce imagining Nora squatting over him, with “a big fat dirty snaking thing coming slowly out of your backside.” Birmingham writes how these letters “are one of the secret headwaters of modern literature,” and I think Birmingham is right. At this point, it seems that Joyce discovered that everything could be said. There was nothing that could not be transformed into language.

But of course, it was Joyce’s originality with language itself that represented the extra problem for his contemporary readers: his subscribers and attorneys. And I think it’s possible to argue that the linguistic loop-the-loops of Joyce’s prose derive from the same disabused source: his meticulous materialism.

For something strange happens to language in Ulysses. In it, Joyce achieved verbal replicas of joyful brilliance—not just the ordinary prose effects of precise verbs (cattle “slouching by on padded hoofs, whisking their tails slowly on their clotted bony croups”), but rhythmic reproductions (“A cavalcade in easy trot along Pembroke quay passed, outriders leaping, leaping in their, in their saddles”), and audio imitations (“Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss ooos.”)

And while such replicas might at first sight seem to be ways of foregrounding the artifice of writing, I think the intention was really the reverse. “His writing is not about something,” Samuel Beckett would famously write, “it is that something itself.” Joyce tried to make language become what it describes. He wanted to make it as literal as possible. “When the sense is sleep,” added Beckett, “the words go to sleep…. When the sense is dancing, the words dance.” Beckett was talking about Finnegans Wake, but the project is already visible in Ulysses. When the sense is trotting, the words trot; when the sense is water, the words deliquesce. For what could be more realistic, after all, than a sentence where the word becomes the thing it described?

What seems to have happened, as the novel progressed, was that Joyce realized that if he could transform any phenomenon into language, it was also true that the literalism could be flipped the other way. Language itself could be treated as a thing, a phenomenon to be included in his epic. Every day, we are assailed and contaminated by dead language, by language that has become an object like any other—the random clichés of our internal monologues, advertising slogans, the mass-produced styles of magazines and newspapers. And so, if the ideal was comprehensiveness, a total taxonomy of the world’s phenomena, then he also needed to include not just the full range of the world’s objects, but the full range of its styles, too. “To compress all these wanderings and clothe them in the form of this day is for me possible only by such variation which, I beg you to believe, is not capricious.”

It’s not capricious, but can poor Archibald Bodkin be blamed if the structure of the book eluded him? Instead of the usual unity of style, Joyce’s novel would be held together by the repetition of its infinite motifs. Ulysses becomes its own self-generating machine, remixing its materials across its various techniques. In the episode on the beach, say, Bloom’s orgasm had been covertly signaled by a romance description of the Mirus Bazaar firework display: “And O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads.” And then, a hundred pages later, in the dream play of nighttown, those fireworks minutely return in a garishly self-referential stage direction: “Mirus bazaar fireworks go up from all sides with symbolical phallopyrotechnic designs.” With such variations and repeats, Joyce organized the vast expanse of his romanzaccione.

For Joyce was correct, in a way, to call this novel an encyclopedia. Its genre is not so much the novel as total collage, or world history. “I think I will write a history of the world,” he’s said to have told Harriet Shaw Weaver, on being asked what he planned to write after Ulysses. But then, he already had.