- Burn this Book
Penguin Random House
418 Pages; Print, $29.95
The story of the fight to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is remarkable. Outlawed, either officially or unofficially, in nearly every English-speaking country, the book was confiscated, burned, pirated, and smuggled for many years. Those who printed it, sold it, and distributed it risked going to prison. Even those who carried it through customs could face a five thousand dollar fine or up to ten years in prison. Yet in spite of these and other risks, many brave individuals contributed to the dissemination of this “dangerous book.”
When no publisher would accept it for fear of a fine or prison, the owner of a small bookstore in Paris took up the task. Sylvia Beach met James Joyce at a party in July of 1920. Though Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, had just opened in November of 1919, it quickly became a center and community for literati. The party, hosted by the French poet André Spire, was held to welcome Joyce to Paris (which would become his home for the next twenty years). Beach had not been invited, but was brought to the party by a friend.
Their encounter was fortuitous. The next day, Joyce stopped by Beach’s bookstore and began to forge a relationship that would result in her offer in 1921 to publish Ulysses. Earlier that year, the “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses, which had appeared in The Little Review (a small journal edited in the states by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap), was found in violation of New York state law against obscenity. This meant the prospect of publishing the entire novel in the US was slim.
Marked by an obscenity conviction and no viable option for publishing the novel in either the United States or Britain, Joyce vented to Beach. “My book will never come out now,” said Joyce. Her reply was simple and direct, “Would you like me to publish Ulysses?” The process was far from easy.
The plan was to produce a private edition of the novel sold directly to customers by mail order. Purchasers included Hart Crane, W. B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Winston Churchill. Direct shipping through the mail was illegal, making delivery difficult, but Shakespeare and Company managed to sell twenty-four thousand copies of the book in nine years. By comparison, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) sold nearly that many copies in its first year of publication.
Beach’s printer, Maurice Darantière of Dijon, did not use a linotype machine to cast the lines of Joyce’s six hundred page novel. Rather, they were set one letter at a time. Making matters even more difficult, was that Joyce was not finished writing the novel even after the manuscript was sent to the printer. He continued to write through the galleys and page proofs, and is said to have gone through as many as four galleys and five page proofs for every page of Ulysses. Resetting pages of tiny metal blocks was time-consuming and expensive. Fortunately, Beach, with financial support from Miss Weaver, Joyce’s patron, allowed him to work with the printer until he was satisfied with each page.
Kevin Birmingham’s account in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses of the struggles to bring Ulysses to readers is complex and detailed. Though long and meticulously researched, the book is far from tedious. Its twenty-seven chapters are well planned and highly readable.
The characters involved in the battle for Ulysses include printers, publishers, anarchists, poets, journal editors, civil servants, wealthy patrons, lawyers, book pirates, and “bookleggers.” Each of their stories has been carefully researched, and each is rendered in lucid, entertaining prose with interesting color commentary. By the time the reader reaches Birmingham’s fine account of the 1933 obscenity trial of Ulysses in the final chapters of the book, jet lag sets in from having gone back and forth across the...