Printer Friendly

Back from hell! The most dangerous book in New York.

A Report on Kevin Birmingham's talk on "Samuel Roth, Bennett Cerf, and the Americanization of Ulysses " on 7 May 2014 at Butler Library, 535 West 114th Street, Columbia University, New York City, and his "Reading/Discussion/Book Signing" for The Most Dangerous Book:

The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses on Tuesday, 17 June, 2014 at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 150 East 86th Street, New York City.

Reader Alert: The following is not a book review. It is a report on two presentations by the author of a new book that has reopened the debate on Joyce and syphilis.

IN HIS "UNPREMEDITATED" autobiography, It Isn't This Time of Year at All! (1954), Oliver St. John Gogarty has written that "Joyce could parody every prose style and get an equivalent sound for every word" (88). He notes that religious prayers and texts were favored sources for such parodies, and he quotes one based on the Catholic service's Prayer to St. Michael that Joyce was particularly fond of reciting:

   Blessed Michael, the ass angel, propel
   us in the hour of contact; be our
   safeguard against the wickedness and
   snares of the Syph Fiend; May God
   rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do
   Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host,
   thrust syphilis down to Hell and with
   him all the wicked spirits who wander
   through the world for the ruin of tools.
   Amen. (88).

A new book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses (Penguin, NY 2014), has re-raised the old question about whether Joyce had syphilis. Joyce himself would no doubt have viewed this controversy as an irrelevant sideshow, but the book's author has insisted on gossiping about it again, and all that Joyce can do now is spin in his grave. Wickedness and wicked spirits, indeed!

The Bloomsday 2014 publication of The Most Dangerous Book was preceded and followed by presentations in New York by its author Kevin Birmingham, a Harvard lecturer, for an audience of mostly academics in May at Columbia, and the general public in June at Barnes & Noble. About two dozen people attended the Columbia lecture, held in a fifth floor library classroom, while a few more turned out on June 17th at one of Barnes & Noble's smaller event venues. The University talk attendees, prior to the book's publication, were a fairly quiet bunch; the real fireworks began at the bookstore forum, just one day after The Most Dangerous Book came out.

Birmingham's remarks at Columbia, the concluding event at the University's Publisher as Provocateur: Samuel Roth in Context exhibition, posited Bennett Cerf and Samuel Roth as "modernism's doppelgangers ... the two faces of the Americanization of Joyce's Ulysses. " Ironically, Cerf and Roth both attended Columbia at the same time (1916), but Roth dropped out after one year whereas Cerf received his B.A. three years later. Birmingham began his talk with an account of Cerf's wealthy family background, growing up just two miles north of Columbia, and his start as vice president at publisher Boni & Liveright in the early 1920's, before his rise to head of Random House and The Modern Library by the '30s. Birmingham described Cerf's business approach and success as being somewhat modeled on Sylvia Beach's handling of the 1922 first edition of Joyce's Ulysses, producing both trade and deluxe editions of new titles, and combining this with the timely purchase of reprint rights to older titles followed by a strategy of very aggressive marketing. By the time he participated in the fight to legalize and then publish the first authorized American edition of Ulysses exactly eighty years ago, Cerf had begun to achieve the notoriety and additional financial rewards that would characterize the balance of his very public career in publishing and beyond.

In contrast, Samuel Roth came to New York as a poor immigrant and rose from being a bookstore owner in Greenwich Village to writing a series of books and publishing many more, including pirated, unauthorized segments and an edition of Joyce's Ulysses, years before Cerf's Random House edition appeared. While he served jail time, underwent bankruptcy and participated in a 1957 Supreme Court case that redefined obscene material unprotected by the First Amendment (among other travails), Roth stayed professionally active well into the 1970s. Birmingham ironically pointed out that Roth was a fairly devoted family man whereas Cerf had a reputation for being an enthusiastic skirt chaser. In sum, Birmingham said that Cerf worked for fame, fortune and other entertainments while Roth "did it for the letterhead." One moment at the end of Birmingham's talk stood out: he announced that he was awaiting the delivery of an advance copy of his book that very night (one wondered whether it was on a train from Dijon!), and a member of the audience (some thought it was a set-up) asked about a rumored bombshell revelation in his book; Birmingham said he was not at liberty to discuss it. With this, Birmingham purposely left his Columbia audience both teased and frustrated.

At Barnes & Noble, less than six weeks later, the scene was entirely different. Several hard-copy publications, mostly American and British newspapers/journals, had printed advance reviews of Birmingham's book, and cyberspace was all atwitter about Birmingham's claim to have unearthed "new" evidence to support the old argument that Joyce had syphilis. Much of the media focus on Birmingham's book centered on this issue, the quality of his research and his handling of the matter.* In fact, Birmingham had written an article titled "A Portrait of the Artist as a Syphilitic" for Harper's Magazine prior to the publication of his book, though it was published after. But questions about his complicity in generating the ensuing controversy were naturally raised. Birmingham's tease at Columbia had turned into a worldwide literary uproar.

Birmingham's reading from sections of his book began the Barnes & Noble event evenly enough. He opened with some extemporaneous commentary on Joyce's history with eye problems: a first surgery in 1917, inflammation of his iris, glaucoma, twelve subsequent surgeries, treatments with Atropine precipitating hallucinations, etc. He outlined how Joyce's eye problems dictated how he had to compose his later works using scraps of paper, colored pencils and other techniques, requiring bright lights and peering through magnifying lenses. Beginning this way, it seemed that Birmingham was laying the groundwork for his argument about the cause of the eye problems, and its suggested effect on Joyce's writing. But, contrary to expectations, Birmingham then told his audience he would focus his talk on some of the figures on the periphery of the Ulysses publication story; he did not even hint at the syphilis issue.

First, he read a section of his book about Sylvia Beach, touching on both her pivotal role in the publication of Ulysses and her on-again, off-again relationship with Joyce. Next, Birmingham turned to Jud ... cge John M. Woolsey, the man who ruled in favor of Ulysses, permitting its publication in the U.S. in 1934. Birmingham's writing brings Judge Woolsey to life, picturing his library, his summer home and garden, and the deliberate way in which he read all of Ulysses (he did not have to) before finally reaching his decision. The portions Birmingham read were compelling, dramatic, engaging, and his research seemed deep, adding new, detailed information to our knowledge of the story of Ulysses. He concluded his reading with a section on the perceived danger of Ulysses, citing its revolutionary blow for freedom of expression and (first checking whether there were any children in the audience--there were none) quoting some of the book's more colorful language. It was a pretty good performance and the Barnes & Noble attendees were largely entertained. And then ...

The discussion phase of the Barnes & Noble event included some routine questions about Joyce (when was he born?) and Ulysses. Toward the end of the discussion period, however, an academic who teaches at NYU rose; she had obviously seen an advance copy of Birmingham's book and questioned his fairness and the quality of his scholarship. She asked, in particular, about Kathleen Ferris's James Joyce and the Burden of Disease (University Press of Kentucky 1995), which cites on pages 75 and 157 an October 1928 treatment of Joyce with arsenic and phosphorus, used only in cases of syphilis. (I later confirmed this in Ferris's book). She said that this was the very same medical evidence that she believed Birmingham was claiming as his own discovery, and she wanted to know why he had not credited Ferris in his book nor in his Harper's article, mentioning Ferris's conclusion only, while also disparaging Ferris' work in a Guardian British newspaper interview. Birmingham gave a less than satisfactory non-response to this question. (A letter from Ferris was published in the 1 July 2014 issue of the Guardian, under the title "James Joyce Book Does Not Sufficiently Acknowledge My Work.") Then the questioner pointed out that on page 20 of his book Birmingham refers to George Moore as an "Anglo-Irish Protestant," when Moore was, in fact, born a Catholic and remained one for over fifty years before converting. Birmingham mumbled something about a future "revision" to his book.

In the final question of the discussion period, I mentioned that Brenda Maddox's biography of Joyce's wife, Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom (Houghton Mifflin 1988), was known in some circles as the "Nora was a whore" book (see p. 28). Might Birmingham be suggesting that Joyce got syphilis from her, or did he give it to her? He would not venture an opinion on this. I also wanted to know, in light of his Guardian interview and article in Harper's magazine, whether Birmingham wasn't at the very least encouraging a "Joyce was a syphilitic" fame for his work. He denied this at Barnes & Noble (and in subsequent emails), yet I (for one) remain unconvinced. But for the syphilis matter, it seems that Birmingham's book would not have received half the attention it has. At the end of the discussion period, Birmingham was kind enough to sign a copy of his book and I told him I looked forward to reading it.

Returning home after the Barnes & Noble event, I decided to look a little further into the syphilis question. I consulted my copy of Dr. J.B. Lyons' James Joyce & Medicine (Humanities, NY 1974), signed and inscribed to me by Dr. Lyons at the 1988 Joyce Conference in Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In this book, Dr. Lyons details the nature of syphilitic iritis, its onset and development; he notes that these did not match the timing of Joyce's illness. Based on the evidence that he had at that time, Dr. Lyons definitively concluded that "(t)here is nothing to suggest that Joyce had syphilis" and, as a cause of Joyce's iritis, syphilis "can be confidently excluded" (204).

Regardless of the availability to Lyons of other evidence which might have contradicted his argument, I assumed Birmingham would document Lyons' conclusions. A quick check of The Most Dangerous Book was fruitless; its endnotes and on-line expanded documents inexplicably make absolutely no reference to Lyons' finding. When I asked Birmingham, repeatedly, in follow-up emails about this--why extraordinarily relevant and specific background, presented by a physician, on a medical issue that he (Birmingham) was re-raising does not appear anywhere in his book, not even as a citation--he initially ducked the question. Birmingham eventually wrote back something about it disrupting his "narrative." And that was the same reason he gave for the raft of others who have weighed in on the subject of Joyce and syphilis who Birmingham also chose not to cite; his later email helpfully listed "Ellmann, Davies, Bowker, McCourt" among others he just left out of his book. "Not manageable," Birmingham's email read. Like his treatment of Ferris, who was also on his list. "Not manageable." Hmmm ...

I also consulted my copy of Dr. Lyons' subsequent book, Thrust Syphilis Down to Hell and Other Rejoyceana: Studies in the Border-land of Literature and Medicine (1988), virtually an entire volume by a physician just about Joyce and the syphilis question. The title of this book is sourced in Joyce's parody of The Prayer to St. Michael, a reference also appears in Ulysses (14.1543). But no mention of the arguments of Thrust Syphilis in Birmingham's book, except as a bibliographic citation. I was getting more than a little uneasy about Birmingham's book, even before reading it.

I have now read The Most Dangerous Book and will leave a formal review of it to others. But with regard to the syphilis matter, Birmingham's only claim to fame appears to be his identification of the name of the arsenic and phosperous compound, galyl, with which Joyce was treated. He then uses this discovery to argue that, since galyl was only used to treat syphilis in the late 1920s and Joyce had eye problems often associated with syphilis, then Joyce must have had syphilis. Not that Joyce feared he had the disease, not that those treating him thought he had the disease ... he had it! Simple as that!

Part of the problem here, apart from Birmingham's lack of any medical diagnostic credentials, is his seemingly equal deficiency in proper scholarly research and documentation. Reams of articles have been written on Joyce and syphilis and, in addition to those mentioned above, others who Birmingham found "not manageable" are also left out.

I must permit myself one additional specific comment on Birmingham's book's content, related to his hyperbolic style. Birmingham quotes much of Joyce's "dirtiest" letters to Nora at length in this book; but it is not Joyce's language that those of us already familiar with this material might object to. Birmingham writes: "Nora guided Joyce to his most noble and exalted writing by letting him be obscene"--emphasis added (140) and "the paradigmatic scene of Joyce's sexual imagination (and a point of origin for the literary imagination of his greatest years--emphasis added) was the thought of Nora uttering dirty things, watching her mouth forming the words" (141) ... this followed by a Joyce letter to Nora sentence fragment repeating the / word five times. Or "The erotic love letters between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle are one of the secret headwaters of modern literature." Is Birmingham kidding? I think Joyce would say "What crap!" These were private letters, never meant to be seen by anyone but Joyce and Nora, and to credit them as the source of Joyce's genius is only exceeded by the inanity of claiming that syphilis is. Readers may take serious exception to much of what tries to pass for literaiy history in The Most Dangerous Book, but Birmingham really tops himself here:

   He fixated on one particular word she
   wrote. He contemplated the curves of
   the letters, the shapes they must have
   compelled her mouth to make.... The
   word was bigger than the others, and
   she underlined it. The thin arcs of the
   cursive f soared above her writing's
   gentler slopes and plunged down below
   them. It had the symmetry of a bow on
   her blue chemise with one of the ribbon
   ends pulled toward the upturned vowel.
   Joyce lifted the letter to his lips, and he
   kissed the word. He wanted pages
   more. (141)

Purple passages like this are studded throughout The Most Dangerous Book; bodice-ripper writers have nothing on Kevin Birmingham!

In addition to Maddox's biography of Nora, The Most Dangerous Book may also remind readers of Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough, by John J. Ross, M.D. (St. Martin's 2012), which makes a similar case for Shakespeare being a syphilitic, interpreting his work through the lens of this information. In one of his emails, Birmingham spontaneously volunteered: "Do I think a syphilis diagnosis is important to our understanding of Joyce's life? Absolutely!" Yet, in a prior email (and publicly subsequently), Birmingham has expressed chagrin about the media's attention to the syphilis question, a debate that he re-raised, fearing that it would "overshadow the main focus of my book." On the face of the evidence, particularly his Harper's article and the Guardian interview, the author "doth protest too much, methinks" (Hamlet, Act III, Scene II, 229-30). "Me also thinks" that the main focus of The Most Dangerous Book is sales.

To be clear, I do not know (nor do I care much) about whether or not James Joyce had syphilis; a syphilis diagnosis is not important to my understanding of Joyce's life nor his work. Joyce certainly made reference to syphilis often enough--in his fiction, letters and personal remarks--showing that he had more than a passing interest in the illness. It is well-known that Gogarty referred Joyce to a physician for treatment of gonorrhea ("gleet") in 1904, so it would not be unthinkable that Joyce had also contracted syphilis. That said, one might prefer to think that Gogarty's speculation about a common attitude toward the disease in the early twentieth century, to be found in It's Not That Time of Year at All!, might well apply to Joyce:

   syphilophobe, and that is an almost
   incurable condition. You can contract it
   without getting syphilis.... we used to
   say that you could cure syphilis but not
   syphilophobia, that is, the fear of
   syphilis. (50).

From my perspective, Birmingham takes a selective, sensational and "creative" approach to literary history and, as a result, it is somewhat difficult to take him seriously as a scholar. One notes that the syllabus for his Spring 2014 course in the Harvard Writing Program indicates that Birmingham lectured on "What happens.... when Proust meets Porky Pig." Perhaps Birmingham's revised book will reveal more than he already has about Joyce's real-life encounter with the infamous Fresh Nellie of Dublin's Night-town, much as Joyce's brother Stannie partially details in his Complete Dublin Diary (for those of a curious nature, see page 27 of the 1971 Cornell edition). Or maybe next Spring, if we get lucky, Birmingham will be lecturing at Harvard on what happens when Joyce meets Biddy the Clap (U 15:4438).

The Most Dangerous Book is itself dangerous, not so much for what it includes, but mostly for what it leaves out. The case for Joyce as syphilitic requires a full and fair airing of all the facts, not just the ones that support one's sensationalist position. Since selling books is his real goal, Birmingham should try his hand at writing more romance novel material; he seems pretty good at that. And, as Porky would say, "Th-th-th-that's all folks!"

--New York

* For example, in a review entitled 'Joyce, Ulysses and Obscenity Viewed in Page-Turner Style" that appeared in the Washington Post on 11 June 2014, Michael Dirda portrays Birmingham's book as "noticeably sensationalistic ... withholding key facts (to) spring on the reader with theatrical flourish ... revealing the cause of Joyce's eye ailments only near the end of the book." London's 3 June 2014 Guardian headlined a story 'James Joyce Had Syphilis, New Study Claims," with Birmingham quoted as saying "the news of a syphilitic Joyce changes the way we understand his life and work." (It is in this interview as well that Birmingham says Ferris "makes a lot of assumptions ... counts literary evidence as biographical evidence ... her work was openly ridiculed." Little more than three weeks later, in a 19 June 2014 email to me, Birmingham wrote that Ferris "was brave to argue that Joyce had syphilis." Had he changed his mind about Ferris after the NYU teacher challenged him on June 17?) The 14 June 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education: Review unqualifiedly declared that "the agonies of syphilis-induced iritis ... left (Joyce) on the verge of blindness and madness." Finally, the 24 June 2014 edition of The New York Times, in a rave review, sweetly listed "tenderness and syphilis" among the "eight or nine good stories" to be found in The Most Dangerous Book. Birmingham's "new" theory of syphilis as the source of Joyce's eye problems, and another "point of origin" for Joyce's writing, began to take hold.
COPYRIGHT 2015 Irish Studies Program
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's "Ulysses"
Author:Gerber, Richard J.
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2015
Previous Article:Finding the way home.
Next Article:A greener Joyce.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters