restricted access James Joyce, Sexuality, and Social Purity (review)
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Modernism/modernity 11.2 (2004) 361-363

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James Joyce, Sexuality, and Social Purity . Katherine Mullin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xi + 224. $60.00 (cloth).

Despite the somewhat prim Victorian title academic decorum no doubt requires, Katherine Mullin's James Joyce, Sexuality, and Social Purity is actually laden with prurient tales of the very best (or worst) sort. Even readers familiar with recent studies of sexuality and censorship in the early twentieth century—ranging from Paul Vanderham's James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of Ulysses, through Colleen Lamos's Deviant Modernism, to Alison Pease's Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity—will find a detail or two here sure to be both fascinating and titillating. In a series of deft, well-researched, and fascinating chapters, Mullin ranges across topics as diverse as the traffic in virgins, the policing of pubescent masturbation (requiring [End Page 361] the removal of doors from school lavatories), mutoscope peep shows, pedophilia, homosexual panic, and the arrangements of brothels in Dublin's Nighttown (the last so spectacular, apparently, as to merit special mention in the 1902 Encyclopedia Britannica). Holding all of this together is Mullin's central claim that from his earliest writings through the final publication of Ulysses in 1922, Joyce engaged in an unstinting covert battle with the loose but effective confederation of Protestant social and religious groups that sought to root out all traces of "vice" from American, British and Irish life. Such battles raged not simply in the offices of the editors and publishers who consistently refused to print Joyce's texts for fear of persecution, nor only in the American law courts where Ulysses would be banned as obscene. The social purity movement, Mullin contends, extended its tentacles throughout Victorian and Edwardian society, policing everything from boys' schools to the red-light district of Dublin, where until 1910 members of the city's White Cross Vigilance Association stood about outside brothels, shining lanterns in the faces of their visitors while taking down the names and addresses of those they recognized.

That the social purity organizations commanded such considerable influence has, of course, become something of a truism, and among the first thing students learn about modernist texts like Ulysses or Lady Chatterly's Lover, or (more recently) The Well of Loneliness, is that they were all immediately—if unjustly—banned by Victorian prudes. In this still seductive fable of censorship and freedom, Joyce, Lawrence, and Hall become martyrs to their art, innocently and uncomprehendingly skewered by Anthony Comstock and his crusading band of moral censors. It is precisely this image of Joyce as the innocent bohemian, however, that Mullin seeks to correct, arguing that a "pattern of subversion" (83) is evident throughout Joyce's work, aimed at revealing the thoroughgoing hypocrisies of the various campaigns for social purity. Joyce, she contends, is "neither victim nor hero" of the censorship debates, but an "agent provocateur" whose "fascinating anticipation of his censorship, and his response to that threat through the creative appropriation of prevailing debates about art, morality and sexuality" must be textually excavated (3). A careful reader clearly at home in a variety of archives, Mullin proceeds to dust away the mythical innocence of Joyce in a series of chapters that wend their way convincingly through all of his major works except Finnegans Wake. This proves to be a rollicking good journey and leads to a series of quite striking intertextual engagements: between social discourses on childhood innocence and "An Encounter"; between the early-century frenzy surrounding the "white slave trade" and "Eveline"; between debates on the dangers of masturbation and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; between Theosophy's radical attempts to control sexual desire and the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of Ulysses; between mutoscope peep shows, early cinema, and the masturbating Bloom of "Nausicaa"; and finally between the fraught anti-pornography movement and the spectacle of Dublin's Nighttown in "Circe."

Two of these chapters have already appeared elsewhere—a fact curiously unacknowledged in the text—and all of them make substantive and creative additions...