It Took a Village
The Penguin Press, 2014
Reviewed by Seana Graham
I’ve been absorbed in this new work on the censorship of Ulysses over the past few weeks for several reasons. As a longstanding member of a group that reads Finnegans Wake together every couple of weeks, I perhaps have a more specialized reason for enjoying this book than many. But even after several years of picking out allusions to aspects of Joyce’s time and culture that are strewn throughout the book, I have never really had a grasp on the way the whole web of people and connections fed into Joyce’s life and art or how dependent he was on the sustenance and support of so many. After reading this book, I now understand what Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway did for Joyce, as well as, more famously, Sylvia Beach and Harriet Weaver. I know what Pound’s essay “Vortex” meant to literary Britain before World War I, as well as the aims of The Little Review, which serialized Ulysses in America starting in 1918.
But you don’t have to be a Joyce aficionado to enjoy this book, although you may become more interested in his work if you do. What Birmingham is after here is a portrait of the culture, American and British, that made Ulysses possible but that also set out to ban its existence outright. On one level Birmingham, whose research has focused on literary obscenity and the avant garde, is asking us to consider what obscenity really is and who has the right or power to censor it. As we struggle in our own day with ideas about privacy and government surveillance, it is well worth reviewing what was happening a century ago on these issues, when, with far less sophisticated technology, the government was able to create a quite repressive atmosphere, involving book burning and even jail time. A vague and subjective law, which left obscenity in the eye of the beholder (and enforcer), didn’t help matters any.
One test of a book worth reading is whether it challenges your assumptions, and this one rocked mine several times. Who knew, for instance, that our beloved if foundering institution, the U.S. Post Office, had once been the agent of such capricious repression? Who knew that I would have a little more understanding of the anti-federalist position of those ranchers out west after reading about the battles of anarchists with their own ax to grind back in the prewar years of the last century? Or that what we think of as First Amendment rights today were by no means what were assumed as Ulysses struggled for a foothold here?
In case you think this might be a dry text focused only on law, be assured that it is not. Birmingham has a fair amount to say about Joyce’s own life and struggles—and the struggles he created for his nearest and dearest as well—but the lives of countless others, friends and foe alike, are rendered in an equally compelling way. Or perhaps even in a more compelling way: for me, Joyce becomes more not less of an enigma as the book goes on.
As we all know, Ulysses survived its persecution, and as with other famous censored books, its success and its endurance is due in part to its repression. The epilogue Birmingham writes is not about what happened to Joyce, but the strange and brilliant career of a book once it could come out into the light of day. Despite the fact that I already knew about the now worldwide Bloomsday celebrations of Ulysses and other aftereffects it has had, I found the closing pages of this long cultural study unexpectedly moving.