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The Most Dangerous Book' author Birmingham to visit Burchfield Penney Friday

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Most Dangerous Book' author Birmingham to visit Burchfield Penney Friday in The Buffalo News by Robert D. Pohl

Read more in The Buffalo News

Kevin Birmingham, the Harvard University based lecturer, literary scholar and recent author of "The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses" (Penguin Books) will give a talk about his much-discussed new book this Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. in Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Auditorium of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. The talk is free and open to the public. Talking Leaves Books, a co-sponsor of the event, will be on hand with copies of Birmingham's book for purchase and signing after the talk.

The Birmingham appearance is part of an afternoon long program that is described as a belated Bloomsday celebration at the Burchfield-Penney. It begins at 2 p.m. with a screening of "Following James Joyce...Dublin to Buffalo," a film commissioned by the National Library of Ireland for its Centennial Bloomsday Exhibit in Dublin. The film, produced and directed by Patrick Martin (of Cinegael Buffalo and riverrun inc.) and Stacy Herbert, and narrated by Laurence Shine, Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at Buffalo State College, traces the trajectory of Joyce's career and legacy in Dublin, Paris, Trieste, Pola (Croatia), Zurich, and finally, Buffalo, where his manuscripts, notebooks, correspondence, ephemera, and other personal materials are archived in the James Joyce Collection of the University at Buffalo Libraries.

At 3 p.m., a stellar group of Buffalo-based actors, including Vincent O'Neill, Loraine O'Donnell, and Gerry Maher, will present readings of selected passages from "Ulysses," as hosted and introduced by Buffalo State College's Laurence Shine. The screening and readings are also free and open to the public.

In the run-up to its publication last week, Birmingham's book received a great deal of enthusiastic praise from reviewers--tempered by some fairly vehement criticism from longtime Joyce scholars and academics--for its broadly accessible style and somewhat more dramatized presentation than is customary in scholarly works. The most pointed criticisms have almost all been directed at the five page passage in Birmingham's four hundred and thirty-two page book in which he adduces a greater degree of evidence than has ever been gathered in a single scholarly presentation concerning the now widely held view that Joyce suffered from syphilis for the last three and a half decades of his life. Specifically, he establishes that one of the medications Joyce was prescribed in the last decades of his life was used exclusively for the treatment of the symptoms of syphilis. Perhaps more speculatively, Birmingham argues that the condition had a marked effect on not only Joyce's deteriorating eyesight and general health, but also on his taboo-breaking sense of the body in his stream-of-consciousness writing as well.

Birmingham has described his book as a "biography" of Joyce's "Ulysses," tracing it from its first conception in 1904 by a then 22 year old Joyce, to its controversial serialization in the American literary journal The Little Review from 1918 to 1920 (which resulted in the journal's prosecution and confiscation on obscenity charges), leading up to the quasi-heroic publication of its first edition (of 100 copies) by Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 1922, and the long, difficult, and richly episodic legal struggle the novel faced in order to be distributed and sold in the English-speaking world, culminating in the "epoch-making" decision by U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey in December of 1933 that concluded "Ulysses" was neither obscene nor pornographic, and could lawfully be imported and published in the U.S. by Random House.

Although this narrative is familiar to many Joyce readers and scholars, most reviewers have noted that the most notable achievement of Birmingham's "The Most Dangerous Book" is to demonstrate and contextualize how "Ulysses" came to be both the most widely recognized masterwork of, and the cultural standard-bearer for, literary modernism in the 20th century. Nearly every discussion we have about "difficulty," innovation, and progressivism in literature and the arts, as well as the role of freedom of artistic expression in a democratic society is today framed by the challenges the book faced in finding its way to its readership and reputation, and the precedents--legal and otherwise--established by its publication and widespread acceptance.

--R.D. Pohl