First, a caveat: in order to thoroughly enjoy Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, you need not have actually read Ulysses. You don’t even have to have plans to read Ulysses. Birmingham expertly gives us the lay of the land in which Ulysses was written: state-sanctioned societies for the suppression of vice wielded enormous power and were openly clashing with writers and artists who were experimenting with new -- and occasionally lascivious -- content (the world shook a little when Ezra Pound abandoned Imagism for Vorticism.) Concurrent with the fight for freedom of artistic expression was another public battle, one that may seem, on the surface, to have little to do with Ulysses: women's suffrage.
But in fact, as Birmingham points out in his introduction, "One of the ironies of Ulysses is that while it was banned to protect the delicate sensibilities of female readers, the book owes its existence to several women." He’s talking here about a specific group of independent women filled with moxie who flouted convention (and sometimes the law) for the sake of Joyce’s opus: Nora Barnacle, his lifelong lover, muse and helpmate; Miss Harriet Weaver, a consummately proper heiress who bankrolled radical magazines and financially supported Joyce for years; Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the lesbian couple who published The Little Review out of New York and serialized Ulysses; and, of course, Sylvia Beach, first to publish Ulysses in full and the founder of Shakespeare & Company, which remains a haven for bibliophiles and weirdos to this day.
Barnacle, of course, is the inspiration for Molly Bloom, whose poignant words of acceptance end Ulysses. That declaration of faith at the end of the tome -- "yes I said yes I will Yes" -- were uttered in real life, decades earlier, when Joyce cryptically asked Nora if there was anyone in the world who understood him. She knew immediately that meant Joyce was planning to leave Ireland, and he wanted her to come with him. Obviously, she said yes. Their marital life wasn’t an entirely blissful one: she was often indifferent to the writing that stole him away from his family, and he drank heavily and suffered from extreme ocular problems. But after he underwent operations in which his irises were sliced, she pressed cold packs on his sore sockets, and when they were apart, they wrote such filthy, lustful, tender letters to one another that reading them would make it impossible to doubt the rich love they shared. In a sense, Ulysses, though she claimed not to find much in the writing, was all for her.
The other women -- with the exception of Beach -- had little to do with Joyce personally, but nonetheless risked everything, including their reputations, livelihoods, and freedom to publish the book. Perhaps the first on the scene was Miss Harriet Weaver. Nothing about Miss Weaver (the only name she ever went by) suggested radicalism. A life-long spinster, Miss Weaver had rebelled against her family’s strict dictates (no dancing, climbing trees, or "exotic vegetables") in the only way she knew how: by reading novels. Though she was often reprimanded for her literary transgressions -- by the vicar of Hampstead, no less -- she simply grew more adamant that reading was something "worth fighting for," as Buckingham puts it.
Introduced to Joyce’s work through Ezra Pound’s magazine The Egoist, which she eventually financed and edited, she immediately knew there was something special about him and his way with words, if not punctuation. Miss Weaver and Ezra Pound tried desperately to find a publisher for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and after being rebuffed by house after house, they finally attempted (unsuccessfully, at first) to print it themselves. Her patronage was a major reason the Joyces didn’t fall into complete destitution. She wanted, as Birmingham writes, "to repay Joyce for the freedom she felt when she read A Portrait by giving him the freedom to write a book unfettered by marketplace constrictions." Later on in life, Miss Weaver got the chance to publish the first British edition of Ulysses. She demanded corrections on the original manuscript, and insisted Joyce receive 90% of sales profits.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Joyce’s champions were Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, two Washington Square bohemians who ran a magazine devoted to "art and anarchism, ecstasy and rebellion." No strangers to the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anderson and Heap’s Little Review, inspired heavily by the anarchism of Emma Goldman, was carefully monitored by censors since its debut in 1914. When the magazine’s funders jumped ship due to its increasingly radical politics, Anderson had to abandon her Chicago home for a tent on the shores of Lake Michigan (it was around then she met Heap and appointed her art editor of the Review.) The magazine was banned from circulation by post on suspicion of violating the Espionage Act in 1917, but that didn't stop Anderson, three months later, from declaring that nothing would stop her from serializing Ulysses. "We’ll print it," she said, "as if it’s the last effort of our lives." When a businessman caught his daughter reading the famous Gerty MacDowell passage, he railed against The Little Review to the District Attorney, and a warrant was issued for Anderson and Heap’s arrest. The women refused to stop petitioning for Ulysses: they interrupted plays to beg for money, suffered as their stock was burned by U.S. Post Office, and eventually were issued jail sentences.
Arguably the most important female in the story of Ulysses is Sylvia Beach, who decided, without having published so much as a menu in her lifetime, to publish Ulysses. An expat from New Jersey who had always dreamed of owning a bookshop-cum-salon, Beach’s Shakespeare & Company had by the mid-1920s become a literary mecca for Parisians and those passing through. Beach met Joyce at a dinner party, and the two became friends, though Beach sometimes felt more like an attendant than an equal. After so many false leads for publishers, Joyce one day wandered into the bookshop to unburden himself to Beach. Birmingham describes the deal as so:
"‘My book will never come out now,’ he said. Her question, when she asked it, was an answer to Joyce’s unspoken proposal. ‘Would you like me to publish Ulysses?’ ‘I would.’"
She decided on a limited, high-quality edition of 1,000 copies, to be advertised privately by mail and printed on demand. Oh, a quick and worthy aside: the book hadn’t yet been finished, to add to Beach’s woes. Beach hired an old-fashioned printer from Dijon, whose staff had to assemble the type letter by letter. John Quinn, the curiously conservative financier of The Little Review, was forced to admit, upon seeing the blue cover and bold type, "that Sylvia Beach had managed to publish a beautiful book."
Of course, this isn’t the entire story of the battle to make Ulysses available, nor is it a chronicle of all the women who put themselves out there for a work of art they considered great. And indeed, as Birmingham’s book outlines, even most of the little chess pawns in the fight were women. There was Dora Marsden, the tiny but fierce suffragette who published Pound and eventually handed over her magazine to Miss Weaver. There was Josephine Bell, proprietor of the Washington Square Book Shop who was arrested for selling The Little Review -- and later placed the largest order for finished (still contraband) copies of Ulysses. There was Joanna Fortune, who attended Anderson and Heap’s trial and paid their bail when they were convicted. Typist Katherine Harrison, who saved scraps of the manuscript from the fire into which her horrified husband, reading of a black mass, threw it. Maggie Ernst, wife of civil liberties lawyer Morris, who helped her husband with the etymology of words the prosecution deemed "inappropriate" to say in her presence.
In a telling anecdote, The Sunwise Turn bookshop in midtown Manhattan, eagerly awaiting their illegal copies of Ulysses, sent furious word to Beach at its delay. "In case it helped," Birmingham writes, "they included the names of individuals willing to act as middleman to receive the merchandise. They were all women." What these women did was say the word -- "the word that shakes it all down," Birmingham says. Yes they said yes they would.