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

The thrilling story of the writing and fifteen-year fight to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For more than a decade, the book that literary critics now consider the most important novel in the English language was illegal to own, sell, advertise, or purchase in the United States. James Joyce’s big blue book, Ulysses, ushered in the modernist era and changed the novel for all time. But the genius of Ulysses was also its danger: it omitted absolutely nothing. All of the minutiae of Leopold Bloom’s day, including its unspeakable details, unfold with careful precision in its pages. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice immediately banned the novel as “obscene, lewd, and lascivious.” Joyce, along with some of the most important publishers and writers of his era, had to fight for years to win freedom to publish. The Most Dangerous Book tells the remarkable story of Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.

Literary historian Kevin Birmingham follows Joyce’s years as a young writer, his feverish work on his literary masterpiece, and his ardent love affair with Nora Barnacle, the model for Molly Bloom. Joyce and Nora socialized with literary greats like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and Sylvia Beach. Their support helped Joyce fight an array of antivice crusaders while his book was disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned around the world. The long struggle for publication added to the growing pressure of Joyce’s deteriorating eyesight, finances, and home life.

Salvation finally came from the partnership of Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, and Morris Ernst, a dogged civil liberties lawyer. With their stewardship, the case ultimately rested on the literary merit of Joyce’s master work. Because a federal judge could get inside Molly Bloom’s head, the sixty-year-old obscenity laws in the United States were overturned.

Birmingham’s archival work brings to light new information about both Joyce and the story surrounding Ulysses. Written for ardent Joyceans as well as novices who want to get to the heart of the greatest novel of the twentieth century, The Most Dangerous Book is an empathetic, gripping examination of how the world came to say yes to Ulysses.



“Kevin Birmingham’s new book about the long censorship fight over James Joyce’s Ulysses braids eight or nine good stories into one mighty strand… The best story that’s told… may be that of the arrival of a significant young nonfiction writer. Mr. Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, appears fully formed in this, his first book. The historian and the writer in him are utterly in sync. He marches through this material with authority and grace, an instinct for detail and smacking quotation and a fair amount of wit. It’s a measured yet bravura performance.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“So it is all the more impressive that this young Harvard Ph.D. in English has written a grand, readable adventure story about the novel’s legal troubles… Birmingham spent years sifting through archives. It shows. He has read Ulysses deeply, borrowing its organizing principles, telescoping some moments, amplifying others, jumping from character to character, continent to continent, subject to subject, text analysis to literary history. This all makes The Most Dangerous Book dynamic.” —Rachel Shteir, The New York Times Book Review

“Birmingham has produced an excellent work of consolidation…. [A] lively history …. The Most Dangerous Book is impressively researched and especially useful for its meticulous accounts of various legal battles. It is meant to be fun to read and, setting aside my fogeyish cavils, it is.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“[G]ripping. Like the novel which it takes as its subject, it deserves to be read.” The Economist

“Terrific…. The Most Dangerous Book is the fullest account anybody has made of the publication history of Ulysses. Birmingham’s brilliant study makes you realize how important owning this book, the physical book, has always been to people.” The New Yorker

“Birmingham recounts this story with a richness of detail and dramatic verve unexpected of literary history, making one almost nostalgic for the bad old days, when a book could be still be dangerous.” Vanity Fair

“The story of Ulysses has been told before, but not with Mr. Birmingham’s thoroughness. The Most Dangerous Book makes use of newspaper reports, court documents, letters and the existing Joyce biographies. It looks back to a time ‘when novelists tested the limits of the law and when novels were dangerous enough to be burned’ and makes one almost nostalgic for it.” The Wall Street Journal

“Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about Ulysses since its publication. Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book is a splendid addition….  this book has groundbreaking new archival research, and it thrills like a courtroom drama.” Dallas Morning News

“I am not a Joycean. But I loved Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book anyway. You don’t need to be a Bloomsday devotee to enjoy or profit mightily from it. Birmingham… writes with fluidity and a surprising eye for fun. He probably has read through the mountains of books and scholarly articles on Ulysses and seems obsessed with the book itself, but wears it all lightly. [A] vivid narrative [that]…makes you want to go back and read—and treasure—Joyce’s novel because he liberally salts the novel’s backstory with memorable anecdotes and apercus, especially at the close of each chapter.” Boston Globe

“Lively and engrossing.” Houston Chronicle

“[A] deeply fun work of scholarship that rescues Ulysses from the superlatives and academic battles that shroud its fundamental unruliness and humanity.” —Slate

“Astute and gorgeously written…. [The] battle for Ulysses…is a story that, as Birmingham puts it, forced the world to ‘recognize that beauty is deeper than pleasure and that art is larger than beauty.’ He has done it justice.” —Salon

“An essential, thoroughly researched addition to Joyceana and a consistently engaging narrative of how sexuality, aesthetics, morality, and jurisprudence collided almost a century ago.” Chronicle of Higher Education

“Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses casts its nets… widely, synthesizing enormous amounts of information and describing in detail the multiple circumstances surrounding the gestation, publication and suppression of Ulysses. Birmingham is a fluid writer, and the more intricate the detail, the more compelling the narrative he constructs: his account of the rise of American obscenity laws… is as gripping to read as his account of the barbaric eye surgeries Joyce endured or his account of the nearly slapstick manner in which Samuel Roth published a pirated edition of Ulysses in 1929.” The Nation

“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…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.” Publisher’s Weekly (starred)

“[A] sharp, well-written debut….Birmingham makes palpable the courage and commitment of the rebels who championed Joyce, but he grants the censors their points of view as well in this absorbing chronicle of a tumultuous time. Superb cultural history, pulling together many strands of literary, judicial and societal developments into a smoothly woven narrative fabric.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“What begins as simply the ‘biography of a book’ morphs into an absorbing, deeply researched, and accessible guide to the history of modern thought in the first two decades of the 20th century through the lens of Joyce’s innovative fiction.” Library Journal

“Birmingham delivers for the first time a complete account of the legal war waged…to get Joyce’s masterpiece past British and American obscenity laws. Birmingham has chronicled an epoch-making triumph for literature.” Booklist

The Most Dangerous Book is riveting narrative nonfiction, populated with enough real larger-than-life characters and twists to make a fiction writer envious. Through Kevin Birmingham’s masterful voice and impeccable research, this story of a singular book that changed the world proves in dramatic fashion that the history of literature is not a landscape but a battlefield.” Matthew Pearl, New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club

“A great story—how modernism brought down the regime of censorship—told as a great story. Kevin Birmingham’s imaginative scholarship brings Joyce and his world to life. There is a fresh detail on nearly every page.” Louis Menand, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Metaphysical Club

“The story of the sufferings of James Joyce’s Ulysses under government censorship and obscenity laws has never been better told than by Kevin Birmingham in this eloquent, deeply researched book. Birmingham takes readers on a vivid journey through the conditions that shackled and, ultimately, liberated Joyce’s masterpiece. Combining fluent narrative and fresh discovery, this book brings to life a lost world of little magazines, literary patronage, postal and customs laws, vice society raids, and courtroom heroics.” Robert Spoo, author of Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain

“A superb work of scholarship and recounting that goes far beyond literary assessment, Birmingham’s minutely researched investigation also grows into an inspiring diary of courage in the face of oppression. The detail, the vast anguish of a great artist, the defiance that truth can incite, the ruguery and the cunning on both sides, the hypocrisy of moral bullies—every page submits an argument for the bravery of those believe in art above all. Dense and exciting, populated with heroes, heroines and villainous government, it’s full of warnings as to where we were as a culture—and what we could become again if our vigilance flags. A wonderfully eye-opening read, The Most Dangerous Book stands beside Richard Ellmann’s defining biography in the great and moving understandings of James Joyce and his epic life.” Frank Delaney, author of Ireland and Re: Joyce

Author Q&A


“This isn’t an easy case to decide,” Judge Woolsey said. He sat back and lit a cigarette lodged in a long black holder. “I think things ought to take their chances in the marketplace. My own feeling is against censorship. I know that as soon as you suppress anything the bootlegger goes to work. Still . . .”

He broke off for a moment, remembering some of the scandalous underlined passages near the end of Ulysses “. . . still there is that soliloquy in the last chapter. I don’t know about that.”

Ernst knew the judge would appreciate the complexity of Joyce’st technique, and he continued to make his case.

“Your honor, while arguing to win this case I thought I was intent only on this book, but frankly, while pleading before you, 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 George Washington behind your bench.”

The judge smiled and rapped lightly on the bench in front of him. “I’ve been worried about the last part of the book, and I have listened as intently as I know how, but I must confess that while listening to you I’ve been thinking about the Hepplewhite chair behind you.”

Woolsey began to wonder if that simultaneity really was the source of the book’s peculiar power. For in the same way that a pair of horn-rimmed glasses reminds Leopold Bloom of his father who poisoned himself when Leopold was still a boy, the arching curve of the Hepplewhite chair might have reminded Woolsey of his mother sitting at home in South Carolina, where the rickety cotton pickers’ shacks were visible through the window. A few years after they left that house, John Woolsey’s mother, having left his father, threw herself from a window in Brooklyn.

So much of the book was “so obscure,” Woolsey said, “so vague, so unintelligible”—but the language stirred something in him. He thought of that woman’s voice at the end. Molly Bloom.

. . . and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Judge Woolsey interrupted again. “There are passages of moving literary beauty, passages of worth and power. I tell you,” he continued, more haltingly now, “reading parts of that book almost drove me frantic. That last part, that soliloquy, it may represent the moods of a woman of that sort. That is what disturbs me. I seem to understand it.”

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