Celebrating the book (and author) that named us
Today marks the 111th anniversary of the day on which James Joyce first went strolling around Dublin with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Also, the date on which Joyce imagined a short story taking place that would follow an ad man, Leopold Bloom, around Dublin. Which, Joyce later expanded into the 18-chapter, 768-page epic novel “Ulysses.” Which, according to the Modern Library, is considered the greatest English-language novel of the 20th century. Which, was modeled after Homer’s Odyssey. Which means there will be Bloomsday breakfasts and walking tours around Dublin and dances in Croatia and Irish music in Brazil and dramatic readings, surely more than one enunciating the book’s final poetic words with vigor.
Which, of course, served as the inspiration for the name of our humble communications consultancy last year.
I first read “Ulysses” as a kind of protest. It was 1994, and I was a reporter at the Springfield Union-News. I covered the police beat four nights a week.
The cops in town had been feuding with the newspaper after a series of articles about the shooting of an unarmed black motorist by a white policeman. In particular, a story about a party the police had thrown for the officer, who had been placed on a paid leave of absence while the shooting was being investigated.
The night cop reporter’s job had usually involved checking in at the police station, reviewing the arrest book, following up on any bigger news items, and filing stories before the paper’s midnight deadline. Given the discord between the paper and the police, however, I would often find myself sitting in the dimly lit lobby of the police station for hours at a time, waiting for the arrest log. Often, the police would claim to have forgotten I was waiting.
And so, I purchased “Ulysses,” the thickest book I could lay my hands on.
Did I read it out of literary curiosity? Partly. Did I want to be able to tell people I’d read “Ulysses?” Maybe. Did I hope the cops saw that I was reading a massive book while they tried to freeze me out from doing my job? Unquestionably.
My waits became delightful respites. The novel was not what I had expected. It shifted styles constantly. One chapter would be typically early 20th Century, hard-to-penetrate prose. Another would be a parody. Still another would be an uninterrupted river of stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry that seemed to articulate the flow of my very own mind. My thought process, something I of course felt was uniquely mine, was there poured out on the page, thoughtful, painful, at times funny. I laughed out loud, echoes reverberating in the capacious police lobby.
As time wore on the book became less a symbol of my resoluteness and more of a joyful distraction. One night, three months and about three-quarters of the way through, a senior copyeditor spotted me in the newspaper’s break room eating my dinner, the book in hand.
— Have you read the final passage yet?
He outstretched his hand for the book. I handed it to him and he flipped to the backpages.
— May I?
He stood upright, cleared his throat and proceeded to read six or so lines from the final paragraph, a paragraph that stretches for page after page, ending triumphantly
— “…and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
I was blown away.
* * *
I am often asked why Orangefiery, and I do wish I had a shorter answer. It’s a word that, as far as I know, Joyce invented – one in a lexicon of more than 30,000 words used in “Ulysses.” It appears in a paragraph to do with communication between two characters, in the Cyclops passage, which is close enough to our domain of work. (“Communication was effected through the pituitary body and also by means of the orangefiery and scarlet rays emanating from the sacral region and solar plexus.”) I could have chosen hundreds of other words from the book, or from somewhere else, but I liked this one. It’s familiar, but different. It’s more interesting to me than Kuczkowski Associates or Partners or Group or Consulting. My kids like it. And, happily, the domain name was available.
* * *
I’ve been reading Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.” In it, Birmingham chronicles the publication history of Ulysses, which was banned in the United States for obscenity from 1922 to 1934.
It’s an amazing story. Prior to reading Birmingham’s book, I always judged Ulysses by its content. I could see what would have been regarded as obscene, of course, but I never quite grasped why it would ever have been banned, or what was so remarkable about it. So much music, film and literature in our modern world similarly conveys the inner thoughts and vices of its subjects, we’ve come to take it for granted in our art.
As Birmingham argues, the legal case against Ulysses, its success as an underground sensation, and ultimately the legal decision that it was, in fact, art and not pornography — helped reshape literature. It established new boundaries for what modernist literature could be. Or more correctly, what modernist literature could be published.
In the 1920s, vice squads patrolled bookstore shelves, ferreting out lewd publications. Books were banned. The entire attitude about obscenity seems counterintuitive from today’s perspective: If Joyce’s novel today seems descriptive of human thought processes, the fear of the 1920s was that it would inspire lewd thoughts among the innocent.
The institutions that supported censorship were surprising. The U.S. Postal Service did not just deliver the mail; it often sat in judgment of what was acceptable content. (For a decade, while Ulysses was banned in the U.S., the postal service intercepted published copies of the book in the mail and burned them. Unknown numbers of the first thousand copies of Ulysses were turned to ash by postal clerks.)
In 1920, while three New York judges were ruling on obscenity charges brought against the publishers of The Little Review, which had serialized chapters of Ulysses, Joyce was still revising the book. The case was lost, the women were fined $100 and the book was banned, even prior to its publication. A decade later, in a decision that is reprinted in my copy of “Ulysses,” Judge John Woolsey declared that he had read “Ulysses” and “in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.” The book was permitted to be sold openly in the United States.
The mechanics of publishing play a larger role in the history of Ulysses than I’d realized. Literally dozens of printers refused to print the book, because of its reputation. It’s staggering to consider, particularly from the vantage point of our digital age. I will cut and past this blog into a WordPress theme and click on a button that says “Publish.” In the 1920s, it was a far more complex task. Sylvia Beach, the courageous American in Paris and owner of the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, who ultimately published Joyce’s first edition in 1922 had to scour the French countryside for a printer willing to put Joyce’s words on paper.
And as with so many histories, we can see the antecedents of modernity. Birmingham’s description of Beach’s efforts to market the book bear a remarkable resemblance to a Kickstarter campaign. Beach had flyers drawn up (“ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication in ‘The Little Review’ will be published by ‘SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY’ complete as written). Prices were fixed, far above market rates. The first 100 buyers were promised copies signed by the author. A thousand copies were quickly purchased, prior to printing.
Finally, the “influencers” of Ulysses were Joyce’s fellow scribes. WB Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and many others acquired copies of the book. They bought it, read it, talked about it. Many wrote reviews, some glowing, some critical. T.S. Elliot wrote Ulysses was “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.”
Think about that, it’s an immense statement.
And there it is. Ulysses, both personally and historically, is all about change. Change centered on expression. Change that is about communication. And art. And connection.
* * *
This weekend, in anticipation of Bloomsday, The New York Times Book Review published two pieces asking the question “How would Ulysses be received today?”
Charles McGrath, a former editor of the Book Review, said that Ulysses ‘seems pretty tame’ by today’s standards, and that it was remarkable for the range of styles and techniques it employed. Rivka Galchen, a writer unknown to me who holds a number of literary awards, reviews the reviews of Ulysses on Amazon, noting that none of them describe Ulysses as obscene. Ultimately, she suggests reading the book yourself, which I would also recommend.
I’m no literary critic. My experience with Ulysses was and is personal. But, I happen to think The Book Review asked the wrong question. The question we can all learn lessons from is actually about how Ulysses was received in its day.
Ulysses is without question an imperfect book. It’s not for everyone, and even for those who love it, it has its boring parts.
But Ulysses is not best understood as just a book. It is not merely a chronicle of one man’s journey through Dublin. Ulysses, in both its creation and its publication, was an act of courage.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs, Ulysses made a dent in the universe.