cover image The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

Kevin Birmingham. Penguin Press, $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-59420-336-7

In this exultant literary history and nonfiction debut, Harvard lecturer Birmingham recounts the remarkable publication saga of Ulysses, often considered the greatest novel of the 20th century. Even before its publication in 1922, Ulysses outraged government censors on both sides of the Atlantic, with its obscenities, masturbation, and adulterous sex. Even the bowdlerized excerpts published in the Little Review resulted in an obscenity trial for the journal’s editors. But a band of literary radicals and free speech activists—Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, Samuel Roth, Bennett Cerf, and Morris Ernst, among others—who were determined to see the book published in America, helped initiate the landmark 1933 obscenity case that set a precedent for First Amendment rights and cultural freedom. The presiding judge, John Woolsey, ruled that the book was not obscene on the grounds of the aesthetic value in its attempt to capture all of life and the roving nature of human thought. This epic of the human body that initially had to be smuggled or pirated became a bestseller and a literary landmark. Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law, and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, WME. (June)