As we come up on 2/2/22, I pay tribute to the centennial of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. February 2 was Joyce’s birthday, and he was intent on having the book printed on that birthday (his fortieth). 2/2/22 has swung around again–this time 2022 instead of 1922.

The book first appeared serially in The Little Review, and American authorities deemed passages in it obscene, confiscated copies of the magazine, and found the Review editors guilty of obscenity in a 1920-21 trial. Not surprisingly this both heightened interest in the book and scared publishers away.  

Frustrated that he couldn’t get the book published, Joyce approached Sylvia Beach, the owner of an expatriate English bookstore in Paris called Shakespeare and Company. Though not a publisher, Beach agreed to produce the book, working with French printers and typesetters. She got it published, as Joyce had hoped, on his birthday.

In this time of sadly renewed debates over banning books from school libraries and curricula, the history of Joyce’s Ulysses is notable. After the French publication, copies were smuggled into the U.S. and Britain, but many were confiscated and destroyed, including 500 copies burned by His Majesty’s Customs in England.  

In 1934, Random House, led by editor Bennet Cerf, deliberately imported volumes of the novel in order to challenge their seizure at Customs in court. Morris Ernst argued the case, United States of America v. One Book Called Ulysses. His victory in that case ended up changing the standards of obscenity from the prevailing standard: likely to corrupt “those whose minds are open to immoral influences” and lead “the young to thoughts of a most impure and libidinous character.”

Following the decision and its upholding in appellate court, books would be judged in whole (not in part), and not for their potential effect on children but for whether the book would promote “sexually impure and lustful thoughts in a normal adult”—what would eventually be identified as “prurient interest.”

Thus, the fact that this lengthy, experimental novel had a few sexually explicit passages and vulgar words did not render it “obscene.”

We can see some parallels in the recent debates over banning, in certain school districts, Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Those who wish to ban the book from a library or a course do not focus on the themes of the holocaust or slavery that so fiercely animate those works. Rather, they cite some drawings of the concentration camps in Maus (a graphic novel) that show naked prisoners and the use of occasional swear words. In Beloved, school board complaints cited a scene that  refers to bestiality, as well as profane language.  

The attack on some details considered age-inappropriate camouflages greater concerns with the literary or potentially political content of the works. The real agenda is a resistance to honest discussion of slavery, the holocaust, and the brutality of prejudice and racism that underlies so much of human history and manifests in atrocities. Both works are Pulitzer Prize winners: Maus is likely the most famous graphic novel and widely considered one of  the finest approaches to the Holocaust for young people.  Morrison’s Beloved  is the most powerful work of fictional imagining of slavery that we have. Critic John Leonard wrote, “I can’t imagine American Literature without it.” It is no accident these works are singled out for attack as part of a misguided assault on “critical race theory.”

Since literal book banning (criminalizing publication and possession of certain books) has become a thing of the past, most bans are aimed at school libraries and courses, come from parents (often politically organized), and focus on explicit sexuality and offensive language (as the American Library Association reports). Nevertheless, as Kathy Newman (a professor at Carnegie Mellon who teaches a class on banned books) summarizes, “the vast majority of books that are banned and challenged in the United States are written by women, people of color, ethnic minorities, and authors who identify with the LGBTQA+ community. Furthermore, many of these books are written, like Maus, to expose and redress wrongs done to marginalized and oppressed peoples.”

The repression of Ulysses was governmental, but not entirely different. The book was so experimental and difficult that most objectors were unlikely to have read much of it. But the fact that it was clearly not pornographic was part of the problem: to represent sexuality and coarse language in a respectable and literary work posed a serious threat and reflected the evolving artistic sensibility of the twentieth century. That Joyce had publicly broken with the Catholic Church and featured a Jewish Irishman as hero was likely relevant as well. 

The book entered literary discourse and was a chief influence on modernism and twentieth century fiction. By the time I first read it in the 1970s, it was a literary classic but still remarkably fresh in its candid representation of human thought.

It’s hard to encapsulate what keeps some readers, including me, returning to that same depicted day in Dublin, like the characters in the Groundhog Day movie. Ulysses is “a circadian novel,” a book set on a single day, with three main characters wandering through Dublin. But their thoughts and the intricate machinations of the narrator connect those commonplace moments with the range of human history and art. How we understand experience is a story told again and again, whether by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare or Morrison. Joyce’s lasting experiment from a century ago offers a way of seeing fundamental human experiences resonating through layers of the works and perceptions of those who have come before. Ulysses blends the richness of the literary past with the immediacy of the moment, so its continued force and relevance on this 2/2/22 is inspiring.

When the book was appearing serially, a friend asked the brilliant Joyce how it felt to inhabit his main character, Leopold Bloom, who had “an ordinary mind.” Joyce replied, “There is no such thing as an ordinary mind.”

So, a hundred years later, here are a few lines for educators as young man Stephen Dedalus both helps and identifies with a sickly high school student struggling with a math problem after class:

In long shady strokes Sargent copied the data. Waiting always for a word of help his hand moved faithfully the unsteady symbols, a faint hue of shame flickering behind dull skin. Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive. With her weak blood and wheysour milk she had fed him and hid him from sight of others his swaddling bands.

Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark places of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.

The sum was done.

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