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  • The Banished: Aesthetic Exclusions in Narrative Nonfiction
  • Kevin Birmingham (bio)

In one of my late revisions for The Most Dangerous Book, my editor wrote a note in the margin of my introduction that encapsulates the challenge of writing for scholars and general readers simultaneously: “Take a beat here to briefly establish what Ulysses means to modernism.” It remains the most difficult editorial suggestion I’ve ever received, for it was asking me to distill, in a few sentences, the complexity of a relationship that has consumed many scholars’ careers, and to do so without reducing that complexity to meaninglessness. In the margins of every page of the so-called “crossover” book, there is a tug of war between scholars on one side who want to know how the details of a censorship case shaped transatlantic modernism and general readers on the other side who just want to know what modernism is. The text is the rope straining between two readerships.

Daniel Schwarz recognizes these competing forces in the midst of his generous praise for my book, and if my narrative offers anything that seems new and indispensable to a scholar as knowledgeable and perceptive as he is, then I can ask for little more. Schwarz instinctively shares the principle underpinning this project: that the “warm fullblooded life” (Ulysses vi. 1006) of literary history—a history that takes seriously such details as Ezra Pound’s letters to Santa Claus and Sylvia Beach’s first glimpse of James Joyce—can be as conceptually rich for the expert as it is narratively rich for the beginner. Pound’s letters to Santa can reveal the underlying tendencies [End Page 341] and aspirations that motivate a key modernist, or they can simply capture a poet’s eccentricities. To write a crossover book is to speak in two registers simultaneously and, more importantly, to develop the new perspective that so often comes from considering a diverse audience’s competing demands.

My book is just one of several recent crossover studies whose primary frame of attention is a single novel’s composition, publication, and early reception. Projects like Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel (about Portrait of a Lady) or Sarah Church-well’s Careless People (about Gatsby) encourage us to think of the lifespan of a book—rather than the lifespan of an author or a movement—as the cellular unit of cultural development and therefore as the basic object of study when dissecting our cultural organism. The crossover audience’s tug of war is an advantage for books like these. Something about the very gathering of a mixed audience encourages scholars to remember that the narratives surrounding novels are as important as our analyses of the novels themselves.

Schwarz appreciates the importance of these biblio-biographies, as we might call them, and the need to share them with readers outside the academy, and yet as sympathetic as he is, he cannot help but read as a specialist who, compared to the typical reader, more readily absorbs complex narratives about his field. A writer might take it as an oblique compliment when a reader wants more material, and Schwarz wants quite a bit more—“more substantive hermeneutics,” more of an “evolving narrative of the major formal experiments and themes of Ulysses” and “much more with the ever-shifting perspective of [Ulysses’] narrator as he moves in and out of characters’ psyches” (338–39).

More importantly, Schwarz believes I “should be more aware of the simultaneity of various strands of modernism” (336), and he wonders why there is no discussion of Matisse, Kandinsky, Kafka, Stravinsky, and the Russian Ballet, to name a few strands. One particularly unfortunate exclusion is Cubism, which Schwarz claims “has had a far greater influence on literary modernism than has been noticed . . . there is a new narrative to be written about Ulysses as a novel responding to Cubism and its complex semiotics” (335). My narrative, however, is about obscenity, and The Most Dangerous Book is about modernism insofar as multiple governmental actions against Ulysses transformed the production and reception of modernist texts. Cubism’s relationship to censorship and to what was putatively obscene in Ulysses was, to put it mildly, tenuous.



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pp. 341-348
Launched on MUSE
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