Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. When James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was first published in 1922, it was banned for obscenity and the U.S. Postal Service burned copies. This week, in honor of Bloomsday on June 16, Charles McGrath and Rivka Galchen discuss how the book would be received if it were published for the first time today.
From the New York Times:
By Charles McGrath
Joyce’s book might seem preening, needlessly erudite, even a little old-fashioned in its naughty bits.
By the standards of today’s dirty books, “Ulysses” seems pretty tame, and it’s hard to put yourself back in the mind-set of those who took such strenuous offense in the ’20s, when the book was first published by the heroic Sylvia Beach. For some reason the passage that most upset the prosecutors was not the famous Molly Bloom soliloquy, or even the Nighttown sequence, which involves anal penetration, if you read carefully, but the relatively innocuous scene in which Leopold Bloom fondles himself while staring at Gerty MacDowell’s knickers. As Kevin Birmingham points out in “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ ” his valuable account of how the book got published, it wasn’t just sex that the censors worried about but the very fabric of civilization. If you let in even a little smut and self-abuse, there was no telling what chaos might follow.
As we know now, the novel’s greatest transgressions were not against decency and morality but against the forms and conventions of fiction writing itself. The entire action of “Ulysses” takes place in a single day, skipping from character to character in seemingly no particular order. Stylistically, the book mingles high and low, poetry and banality, profundity and cliché. There are moments described from inside a character’s head, as well as stretches of pastiche and parody; burlesque chapters; a chapter in play form and one that’s a mock catechism; and even some sections that come close to gibberish. After reading the Sirens section — the one that begins: “Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyrining imperthnthn thnthnthn” — Ezra Pound worried that Joyce might have “got knocked on the head.”