The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for Joyce's Ulysses

Penguin Pr. Jun. 2014. 432p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781594203367. $29.95. LIT
Published in 1922, James Joyce's Ulysses relates in pointillist detail a single day—June 16, 1904—in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, cast loosely as the eponymous Homeric hero. But the saga of the novel and its road to publication and sale goes far deeper than just the story between the covers, observes Birmingham (history & literature, Harvard Univ.). One of the most lauded, controversial, and frequently banned books ever published, Joyce's masterpiece was a touchstone for the icons of modern literary and intellectual endeavor—Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway, among them—and nearly a century later stands at the pinnacle of novels published in English. Covering three decades, from the book's conception in 1905 through Joyce's infatuation with Nora Barnacle (who would later become the novel's Molly Bloom) to the push-and-pull of wildly disparate critical opinion and the groundbreaking 1933 obscenity trial decision ruling in favor of publication in the United States, Birmingham brings to life a work after which "modernist experimentation was no longer marginal. It was essential."
VERDICT 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. Important for literary historians, as well as any readers interested in cultural politics at the advent of the modern in post-World War I Europe and America. [See Prepub Alert, 1/6/14.]
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