“Ulysses” was never banned in Ireland. People there who hated the book weren’t simply offended by the obscenity. They didn’t like what they saw of themselves in it. George Bernard Shaw called the novel’s language “blackguardly,” and said that his own hand could never have formed the words. But he conceded that the book was a masterpiece. He, too, had been a young man in Dublin, and he recognized the city he had known. “ ‘Ulysses’ is a document,” he told a friend, “the outcome of a passion for documentation that is as fundamental as the artistic passion. . . . If a man holds up a mirror to your nature and shows you that it needs washing—not whitewashing—it is no use breaking the mirror.” As Joyce said when he was told that his aunt Josephine had refused to read the book, “If ‘Ulysses’ isn’t fit to read, life isn’t fit to live.”
Henry James, in an essay called “The Art of Fiction,” in 1884, said that in England and America people see more than they think it’s proper to say, and they say more than they think it’s proper to read. More than any other English writer, Joyce destroyed that decorum. He paid a terrible price for it.
Joyce persisted in what he called his “voluntary exile” in order to write the way he wanted to write. This meant that he had to endure continual rejection and critical abuse. His writing was repeatedly censored, and his greatest work had to be published in France, where it was set by French printers, who introduced thousands of typos into the text. The obscenity trial of “Ulysses” in the United States was by no means a pro-forma affair: when the American trial-court judge, John Woolsey, declared “Ulysses” not obscene, in 1933, the Justice Department appealed, and the decision had to be confirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. But by his persistence Joyce established a principle, which is that the artist must have absolute freedom to work with the world he or she has stumbled across, the world as it is. That most of us now take this for granted is largely because of him.
Terrific essay by Louis Menand on Joyce and his biographers, and the sense they did or did not make of his works, on the occasion of the publication of a new bio. In the New Yorker, link via Shakespeare & Co. bookshop email newsletter.