By Catie Crandell, Humanities Council
Banned for more than a decade in the English-speaking world, James Joyce’s Ulysses was denounced upon publication as a “heap of dung.” Today, it is considered the greatest landmark in modernist literature. In honor of Bloomsday, a celebration named after the protagonist of the novel, Leopold Bloom, the Arts Council of Princeton brought together an extraordinary panel of scholars and writers to read their favorite passages of the novel. Attendees had the pleasure of hearing favorite passages read by Kevin Birmingham (author), Paul Muldoon (Creative Writing, Lewis Center for the Arts), Joyce Carol Oates (Humanities Council, Emeritus), Colum McCann (author), Jhumpa Lahiri (Creative Writing, Lewis Center for the Arts) and Esther Schor (American Jewish Studies, English). Sean Wilentz (History) moderated the event, which was cosponsored by the Princeton University Humanities Council.
Watch the full program here.
Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, offered introductory remarks on the novel’s composition and explained what made the book so threatening and dangerous. “It was far beyond what the acceptable standards were for book publication at the time,” he stated. It was charged with obscenity in 1920, which was legally defined in 1868 as a question of “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.” As Birmingham pointed out, this definition made banning of books like Ulysses relatively easy because “a judge did not have to find that someone was actually corrupted by the text. The point was to be able to look at a text and discern from its very language whether or not it would corrupt readers.” There were no grounds for defending such works based on the First Amendment, because freedom of speech was not the issue at hand. It was not until 1933, when Judge John Woolsey “effectively transformed the test for obscenity by making it about whether the book had artistic value,” that the book was made freely available in an English-speaking country.
This long history of censorship certainly explains part of the novel’s notoriety, but its linguistic brilliance is equally important. As Paul Muldoon pointed out, “It’s endlessly, endlessly deep, but I’m not going to belabor that point, I’m just going to read, as I think we should really read, we should just attack this book and read it like any other novel we’re picking up rather than as James Joyce’s Ulysses.” The readings that followed certainly proved the richness of the text and the value of approaching it like just any other novel.
For those unable to attend Bloomsday | Zoomsday, the video recording of the event is available here.