Birmingham brings valuable social, political, and economic context to an age that birthed tiny magazines — from The Egoist to The New Age to The Little Review — that left a gigantic footprint. He shows that even if the “Lost Generation’s” time in Paris is idealized and seen as a magic space, it was still a space where writers were struggling with poverty and how to pay the rent. Writers like Hemingway make amusing cameos — did you know that he played a role in smuggling copies of Ulysses to Canada? Ulysses, ever-so-slowly, gets published in a small print run, and eventually, 12 years later, arrives in America, where it’s the center of an obscenity trial.
Ulysses can be an alienating book. It’s difficult, complex, and so completely its own form that it’s easy to shrug off, if you’re so inclined. But Birmingham’s wonderful history does something great with Joyce’s masterpiece, showing how the literary pirates and courtroom battles, all stemming from one man’s dirty mind, played an important role in the history of modernism and art in the early, tumultuous 20th century. Ulysses feels current and important in Birmingham’s book, and it’s a fantastic read about James Joyce, Ulysses, and why we celebrate Bloomsday, 110 years after the novel’s initial publication.